Italy extends COVID-19 travel curbs and eyes vaccination changes

ROME (Reuters) - The Italian government on Monday extended a ban on non-essential travel between the country’s 20 regions until March 27 as it looks to slow the spread of highly contagious coronavirus variants.

A commuter at Rome's main train station Termini wears a mask, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Rome, Italy, February 22, 2021. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Officials also said the health ministry was likely to accelerate vaccination efforts by telling regions to use all available doses rather than set aside some stock for second shots.

The ban on travel between regions was introduced just before Christmas and had been due to expire on Feb. 25, but officials fear a relaxation of restrictions could lead to a new surge in cases, driven by the so-called “British” variant.

In its first decisions on COVID-19, Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s new cabinet also extended restrictions on visiting family and friends, with no more than two adults allowed into another person’s home at the same time.

No visits are allowed in so-called red zones, where the tightest restrictions are in place. At present, no region is classified as “red” but some provinces, towns and villages have been designated as such.

Although the number of daily COVID-19 cases has fallen from around 40,000 in mid-November to under 15,000, the infection rate, measuring the percentage of tests that come back positive, has edged up in some areas and there are several hundred deaths from COVID-19 each day.

Italy’s official death toll stands at 95,718 - the second highest in Europe after Britain and seventh highest worldwide.

Like other European Union countries, Italy launched its anti-COVID-19 vaccination campaign at the end of December, and has administered 3.5 million shots including second shots. In all, it has received 4.69 million shots from vaccine manufacturers.

Britain has moved more quickly than its former EU partners, giving a first vaccine dose to more than 17.6 million people.

Inspired by the British example, Italian officials have questioned whether the country should use all the vaccines at its disposal now, rather than keeping reserves for recommended follow-up vaccinations.

La Stampa newspaper reported on Sunday that Draghi was set to pursue mass vaccinations using all available doses. Officials confirmed this was likely, but gave no time frame.

Reporting by Crispian Balmer, editing by Gavin Jones and Timothy Heritage