Italian coronavirus death toll jumps, government doubles financial help

ROME (Reuters) - The death toll from an outbreak of coronavirus in Italy has risen by 41 over the past 24 hours to 148, the Civil Protection Agency said on Thursday, with the contagion in Europe’s worst-hit country showing no sign of slowing.

Empty tables are pictured outside a restaurant at St Mark's Square, which is usually full of tourists, after Italy's government adopted a decree with emergency new measures to contain the coronavirus, in Venice, Italy, March 5, 2020. REUTERS/Manuel Silvestri

The government, which has imposed draconian measures to try to contain the outbreak, said it would double the money pledged to help the economy cope with the impact of the epidemic.

The accumulative number of cases in the country totaled 3,858, up from 3,089 on Wednesday.

The increase in both the number of deaths and the number of infections was by far the largest since the outbreak began in northern regions two weeks ago.

As the strain on hospitals increased, the northern Lombardy region, Italy’s industrial and financial heartland that has reported by far the highest number of patients and deaths, told inhabitants not to go to hospital with anything other than urgent problems.

The epidemic is focused on a handful of hotspots in the north of Italy. However, cases have now been confirmed in each of the country’s 20 regions, with 44 in central Lazio around Rome, and 45 in southern Campania, around Naples.

“We are asking the country for unity, we are all in the same boat and we need to work together otherwise it will be hard to overcome this crisis,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told a news conference.

On Wednesday the government shut all schools until March 15, closed cinemas and theaters for longer periods and ordered that sporting events, including top flight Serie A soccer matches, be played in empty stadiums.

On Thursday Italy announced it had canceled a rugby match with England, part of the Six Nations Championship, which had been scheduled for March 14.

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Economy Minister Roberto Gualtieri said the government would spend 7.5 billion euros ($8.4 billion) on the emergency and told the European Commission it would raise this year’s deficit goal to 2.5% of national output from the current 2.2% target.

Just four days ago the minister had promised a smaller package worth 3.6 billion euros, a sum that the opposition and much of Italy’s media deemed inadequate.

Civil Protection Agency chief Angelo Borrelli said more than 3.8% of those who had tested positive in Italy had died, up from 3.5% on Wednesday.

In a video message to the nation, the head of state Sergio Mattarella called on Italians to remain calm.

“Without alarmism, we must have confidence in our abilities and resources, we can and we must have faith in Italy,” he said.

The government postponed a referendum over legislation to cut the number of parliamentarians that was slated for March 29, due to the coronavirus epidemic, without setting a new date.

The delay reduces the possibility of an early election this year, a prospect often mooted due to persistent squabbling in the ruling coalition dominated by the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD).

The referendum is widely expected to pass, in which case various time-consuming changes would be needed to re-draw electoral boundaries and adjust the voting system.

Ordinary political business has ground to a halt, with the Chamber of Deputies in Rome announcing it will only meet once per week to deal with emergency matters.

National statistics bureau ISTAT, also based in Rome, said it had suspended presentations of economic data to reporters, with future releases to be emailed directly to newsrooms.

Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer and Angelo Amante; Editing by Alex Richardson