COVID-19: Italy orders Christmas lockdown as Sweden changes tack with toughest measures yet

·3-min read

Italy is to go into a new lockdown for much of the Christmas and New Year period to tackle a rise in coronavirus cases.

Bars, restaurants and non-essential shops will close between 24 and 27 December, New Year's Eve to 3 January, and 5 to 6 January.

Italians will only be allowed to travel for work, health or emergency reasons.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said it was "a painful decision", but it comes amid a surge in COVID-19 infections.

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"The situation is difficult across Europe. The virus continues to circulate everywhere," he told reporters.

"Our experts were seriously worried that there would be a jump in cases over Christmas... We therefore had to act, but I can assure you it was not an easy decision."

He said limited visits will be allowed to see elderly parents who live alone, adding that the police would not be sent into people's homes to ensure they were sticking to the rules - but appealed to the population to follow the measures.

Mr Conte said the action was necessary to "confront the upcoming holidays in a way to better protect ourselves, and also in view of the general resumption of activities that will come in January".

Italy was the first western country to be badly hit by the virus in February and as of Friday, 67,894 people had died as a result of the disease, the highest number of fatalities in Europe.

The increased measures there come as several countries in Europe which had contained the coronavirus early in the pandemic are now seeing a rise in cases, prompting tough action in the run-up to Christmas.

Sweden, which has had a comparatively hands-off response to the pandemic and has tried not to let it disrupt normal life, is introducing its toughest restrictions yet.

Curbs on the numbers that can gather in restaurants, shops and gyms start from next week, while people have been told to work from home. The government is also now recommending face masks are worn on public transport.

The Scandinavian country has not gone into lockdowns or closed businesses, relying instead on people's common sense to control infections.

However, it is seeing a rapid increase in confirmed cases that is straining the health care system, with Prime Minister Stefan Lofven describing the situation as "very serious".

It registered a record 9,654 new daily coronavirus cases on Friday and 100 deaths, taking the total number of fatalities to 7,993.

Restaurants, bars, cultural venues and sports facilities have been ordered to shut next week in Switzerland which the Swiss government says is necessary as "hospitals and health care workers have been under extreme pressure for weeks and the festive period increases the risk of an even more rapid rise in cases".

Meanwhile, the head of emergencies at the World Health Organisation said a team of international experts looking into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic would be travelling to the city of Wuhan in China - the suspected site of the initial outbreak - in the first week of January.

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Dr Michael Ryan says there would be quarantine arrangements for the team, which would be working "with our Chinese colleagues", but will not be "supervised by Chinese officials".

He said the world should celebrate the arrival of vaccines, but the "next three to six months are going to be tough".