Italy has put the country’s 60 million people on lockdown in the most drastic action taken outside China to tackle the spread of coronavirus. As of 10 March, the country had diagnosed more than 9100 cases, second only to China. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said Italy may not stop at the current restrictions and could use further “massive shock therapy”.
Travel restrictions just for northern Italy were first leaked on Saturday, causing panicked reactions before an official decree was published on Sunday. The measure, unexpectedly extended to the whole of Italy on Monday night, means people must limit travel except for work or medical reasons, or risk a three month prison sentence or a €206 fine.
The travel ban is being enforced on roads by the Carabinieri (military police), while rail services – including night trains from Paris to Venice – have been cancelled. However, flight-tracking service Flightradar24 says that more than 250 flights departed from the five airports for Milan and Venice on Monday, the area initially locked down on Sunday. British Airways announced on Tuesday that it was cancelling all flights to and from Italy.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office has changed its travel advice, advising against all but essential travel to Italy and telling anyone returning from the country to self-isolate for 14 days even if they have no symptoms. UK nationals are still able to leave Italy, it added.
The Italian authorities said the draconian measures are necessary to slow the spread of the virus and relieve the burden on healthcare systems. A report in said 733 people were in intensive care in the Lombardy region, one of the worst affected regions, but it only has about 500 public health intensive care beds.
“We are encouraged that Italy is taking aggressive measures to contain its epidemic. And we hope they prove effective in the coming days,” said World Health Organization (WHO) director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a press conference on Monday.
The big question is whether they will work. Michael J. Ryan at the WHO says the measures could buy time for other areas to prepare. “Reducing the flow of potential infections in other areas may offer those [other] zones time to prepare and have a different outcome,” he says.
Ryan compares the step with strict restrictions on movement in the Chinese province of Hubei and the city of Wuhan, where the virus originated. “The reason China could cope was it only had one Wuhan,” he says. In Italy, he says the restrictions won’t necessarily stop the disease moving, but it should delay the spread. Still, he cautions: “It’s not a guarantee.”
Despite some evidence from China, researchers say we don’t know if the measures will work in Italy. “I think it’s too early to say whether the travel restrictions will be effective, especially since people were moving in and out of the lockdown area before it was implemented,” says Devi Sridhar at the University of Edinburgh, UK. But buying time for health services to cope is vital, she adds.
Trudie Lang at the University of Oxford says we will have to wait and see if Italy’s efforts work. “Obviously if you look at what we’ve achieved in China, the indications are that it had a strong impact,” she says of the travel restrictions in Hubei.
Even if Italy’s restrictions slow the spread of the virus, there are still questions over how long such strong action can be sustained for. Italy has indicated the limits will be in place until 3 April.
But what happens if the situation still hasn’t improved by then, asks Mark Woolhouse at the University of Edinburgh. “There is an important message here for any country considering imposing travel or movement restrictions in an attempt to slow the spread of covid-19: what is your exit strategy?” he said in a statement.