There were panicked scenes at transport hubs in northern Italy as thousands rushed to escape the impending lockdown of 16 million people in the European coronavirus epicentre on Sunday as authorities tried to curtail the virus’s rapid spread.
Word the Italian government was due to implement unprecedented restrictions was leaked to the media hours before it was put in place, prompting residents to make a last-ditch attempt to leave, many taking to roads and some rushing to stations and attempting to board trains to the south of Italy.
Footage on social media shows hundreds of people rushing to board trains inside a Milan station.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was incensed by the leak, lambasting it as "unacceptable", adding it had created "uncertainty, anxiety, (and) confusion".
Massimo Galli, the head of a team of doctors from the Biomedical Research Institute in Milan who managed to identify the Italian strain last month, told AFP it had been a "disastrous communication error" and "absolute idiocy".
#coronvirus, #fugadaMilano. Quindi la soluzione è scappare, prendendo un treno per ritornare al sud? Abbandonare un paese e regione che vi ha dato da vivere? Infettare anche i propri cari? E i medici cosa dovrebbero fare che rischiano ogni giorno la vita? Scappare anche loro? Mah pic.twitter.com/obKLtSOI7O— ROSA (@RosaeRosy) March 8, 2020
Surge will only spread virus further, expert warns
Italian virologist Roberto Burioni described the leak on Twitter as "pure madness" and suggested the surge in residents leaving will have only spread the virus further.
"The draft of a very harsh decree is leaked, sparking panic and prompting people to try and flee the (then) theoretical red zone, carrying the virus with them," he said on social media.
"In the end, the only effect is to help the virus to spread. I'm lost for words".
The country on Sunday recorded the second-highest coronavirus toll in the world, after reporting a sharp jump in deaths – up 133 to 366 – and overtaking South Korea on infections.
Leading national newspaper La Stampa led with the headline: “The virus closes the heart of the north”, while "Half of Italy shuts" was plastered across the front page of the Il Messaggero, prompting fear from millions.
It was not clear, however, how strictly the order would be enforced, or how authorities could prevent people from leaving.
The decree said that only people with a "serious" reason that cannot be postponed, such as urgent work or family issues, would be allowed in or out of the quarantine zones, which cover Lombardy and 14 provinces in four other regions.
But it does allow for the return home of those who were in the affected areas but live elsewhere, including tourists.
The restrictions now in place include the closure of museums, theatres, cinemas and other public venues.
Bars and restaurants can open between 8am and 6pm on the condition patrons are spaced one metre apart.
Sporting events and religious services have been suspended.
Don’t bring the epidemic here, warns Italy’s south
Italy has found itself at the forefront of the global fight against the virus, with more than 5,800 infections recorded in the past seven weeks.
The virus has now spread to all 22 Italian regions and the first deaths are being recorded in Italy's less well medically equipped south.
The head of the Puglia region in southern Italy, Michele Emiliano, pleaded with anyone thinking of returning from Lombardy and the other 11 provinces in lockdown – which include the cities of Parma and Rimini – to "stop and turn around".
"Get off (the train) at the first station, don't get on the flights to Bari and Brindisi, turn your cars around, get off the bus at the next stop. Don't bring the epidemic to Puglia," he said on Facebook.
"You are carrying to the lungs of your brothers and sisters, grandparents, uncles, cousins, and parents, the virus that has severely strained the health system in northern Italy," he added.
The outspoken head of Italy's opposition far-right League party, Matteo Salvini, demanded clarity from the government for the "millions of worried Italians".
"Who can do what? Where can they go? Who can work? Who can travel? And what about borders with other countries?"
Milan and Venice airports were open, but Alitalia said it was suspending national and international flights to and from Milan Malpensa airport, and operating only domestic routes from Milan Linate.
It was business as usual at train stations. The borders with Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia remain open.
Residents share fears as lockdown begins
Pina Antinucci, a psychoanalyst in her 60s who lives in Milan, told AFP she was suffering nightmares and felt the state was "bombarding us with anxieties, spreading paranoia".
"I'd like to know if I'm infected... it would be better to know if I have that unwanted guest who occupies our homes, minds and lives," she said.
With more than 230 fatalities, Italy has recorded the most deaths from the COVID-19 disease of any country outside China, where the outbreak began in December.
The new rules came shortly after the news that the number of people infected had jumped by over 1200 in a 24-hour period.
Vincenzo Tosetti, a 34-year old actor and Venice resident, told AFP "many people I know have fled, mainly from Milan.
"My cousins, my friends, they packed bags and left last night".
"This is going to test the Italians' ability to behave responsibly, and I have to say that up until now they've been failing. There's been an exodus".
Fellow Venetian Giancarlo, 49, who did not want to give his last name, said it was "a lovely sunny day, but you can feel the anxiety in the air".
The floating city was also virtually empty of tourists, which was "a big blow".
"First the city was hit by record floods, now this. Venice is very fragile right now," he said.
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