Italy has been plunged into chaos after details of a plan to quarantine more than 16 million people in the north amid an escalating coronavirus outbreak were leaked to the press, sending thousands into panic as they tried to flee south.
The whole of Lombardy, including its financial capital of Milan, and 14 provinces across the worst-affected northern regions, have been shut down until 3 April as Italy grapples to contain the spread of a virus that has so far killed 233 people and infected 5,883.
Thousands crowded train stations in Lombardy or jumped into their cars after details of a draft decree banning people from leaving or entering the region were revealed by Corriere della Sera late on Saturday afternoon.
On Sunday morning dozens of police officers and medics wearing masks and hazmat suits waited in Salerno, in Campania, for passengers who had boarded overnight trains from Lombardy. The passengers will be registered and obliged to self-quarantine as fears mount over the virus’s spread in the south.
“What happened with the news leak has caused many people to try to escape, causing the opposite effect of what the decree is trying to achieve,” said Roberto Burioni, a professor of microbiology and virology at the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan. “Unfortunately some of those who fled will be infected with the disease.”
The northern regions of Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Veneto account for 85% of all the 5,883 confirmed cases to date and 92% of the 233 recorded deaths. Puglia in the south has had 26 cases, while the provinces of Basilicata and Calabria have had just three and four cases.
Michele Emiliano, the president of Puglia, signed an order on Sunday obliging all those arriving from the north in the coming hours to go into quarantine.
“Get off at the first train station, don’t take planes to Bari and Brindisi, go back by car, get off the bus at the next stop,’’ he wrote on Facebook, mostly addressing people from the region who live in the north. “Do not bring the Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia epidemic to your Puglia. You are carrying the virus into the lungs of your brothers and sisters, your grandparents, uncles, cousins and parents.”
However, the impact of the decree on flights and trains to and from the north are not yet clear. Under the new guidelines, local judicial authorities can decide whether to suspend flights. As of Sunday afternoon, it was still possible to travel by train and plane to Lombardy but, in the next few hours, there will be checkpoints at motorways, train stations and airports.
“The fact that the epidemic is still increasing substantially obliges us to take these measures to limit the freedom of people, which of course are very extreme measures that I don’t think have ever been taken in any other democratic country,” Walter Ricciardi, an adviser to the Italian health ministry on the coronavirus outbreak and member of the World Health Organization, told the Guardian.
“We have to be responsible and being responsible means taking measures in the interest of people, even if sometimes it is hard to understand.”
The leak of the decree sparked harsh criticism from officials. Ricciardi, who was among the team of scientists who signed it, said that he assumed it must have leaked when the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, sent the draft to the regions to get their consent. “It means that sometimes both people from the institutions and people from the press do not feel a sense of responsibility. This is very unfortunate because these kinds of procedures have to be taken very confidentially in order not to provoke panic among the people and inappropriate behaviours.”
The decree, approved by all political parties, was signed by Conte late on Saturday and approved by the council of ministers on Sunday. Conte said the news leak was “unacceptable”. “This news created uncertainty, insecurity and confusion, and we cannot tolerate this,” he said during a press conference in the early hours of Sunday.
Under the decree, police and armed forces will patrol Lombardy’s access points, such as train stations and motorway entrances and exits, as well as border areas of the 14 provinces under lockdown across Emilia-Romagna, the second-worst outbreak zone, Veneto and Piedmont. The provinces include Modena, Parma, Piacenza, Reggio Emilia, Rimini, Pesaro and Urbino, Alessandria, Asti, Novara, Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, Vercelli, Padua, Treviso and Venice.
People will only be able to leave the areas for emergency reasons and face fines and up to three months in jail for breaking the quarantine rules.
An elderly couple from Codogno, a town in Lombardy, where the outbreak first emerged, could face penalties after leaving the town to go on holiday in Trentino Alto Adige. The couple subsequently fell ill and tested positive for the virus after going to the emergency unit of a hospital in Trento.
Schools and universities were already closed across Italy, while cinemas, museums, theatres, gyms, swimming pools and ski resorts will now be closed in the new quarantine zones and all public events, including sporting events, banned.
Bars and restaurants can only open between 6am and 6pm, while shops must guarantee that customers stand at least one metre apart. Weddings and funerals have also been banned in the areas affected. It is unclear how the measures will affect commercial trade in the regions. Public transport services within all territories under lockdown are expected to continue.
As coronavirus takes hold of the country, Beppe Sala, the mayor of Milan, called for a “change of lifestyle”. “We need to avoid contacts that are not strictly necessary,” he said in a video on Facebook. “Please, remain in your homes as much as you can.”
The coronavirus outbreak is wreaking havoc on Italy’s already fragile economy, especially as the northern regions produce the largest share of the country’s GDP. The government on Thursday approved a €7.5bn (£6.5bn) package of financial measures to help the economy withstand the impact.
“We are facing an emergency but locking down a quarter of the country will cause immeasurable damage to Italian families,” added Sala. “People risk losing their jobs. I expect the government to move quickly to make the funds available. Like it or not, Milan is the heart of this country.”
Other major cities, including Rome, have also emptied out, but in many places beyond the outbreak zones people are mostly going about their daily lives.
Burioni said lifestyle sacrifices needed to be made to halt the spread of the virus. “The most important thing at this time is that each and every one of us stay home,” he added. “As much as possible we need to avoid social contact that is not strictly necessary. We all have the responsibility to do what is necessary to prevent the spread. We’ve seen rigorous behaviour in China that has had a very good impact – we need to do the same.”