Italy eyes new COVID-19 curbs as Christmas crowds raise alarm

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ROME (Reuters) - Italy is considering more stringent nationwide coronavirus restrictions during the Christmas holidays, the health minister said on Monday, after scenes of big gatherings in many cities over the weekend raised worries of a new spike in infections.

Italy, the first Western country hit by the pandemic, on Saturday passed Britain as the European nation with the worst official death toll, with more than 65,000 dying since the start of the outbreak in February.

With pressure on hospitals easing and daily cases falling, the government relaxed some restrictions put in place last month. But scenes of crowded shopping districts in cities such as Milan and Rome have caused concern. Police were forced to close off popular sites such as Rome’s Trevi fountain due to large crowds.

“We hope very soon to take new measures to prevent a third wave,” Health Minister Roberto Speranza told state TV broadcaster RAI, adding a meeting between the government’s experts was ongoing.

Across Europe, governments have warned of a potential new spike in infections if Christmas gatherings go ahead as normal. Both Germany and the Netherlands plan tighter lockdowns over the holiday period.

Italian media reported the government could decide to put the country under partial lockdown from Dec. 24 to at least Jan. 2, extending night curfews, banning non-essential movement and closing shops, bars and restaurants on weekends and holidays, with the exception for those selling essential goods.

“We must avoid crowds, it is legitimate for people to shop around but when a person sees that there are a lot of people, he or she should avoid those places,” Speranza added.

Under a decree passed earlier this month, on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day all movement between cities and towns was banned except for work, health reasons or emergencies.

In addition, the government banned movement between the country’s 20 regions from Dec. 21 to Jan. 6, closed ski resorts during the same period and prohibited the traditional Christmas midnight mass due to a 10 p.m. curfew.

Reporting by Giulia Segreti; Editing by Giles Elgood and Alex Richardson