The death-rate from coronavirus in Italy showed its first decline in several days last night as almost 8,000 doctors volunteered to join the frontline fight against the virus in the country’s hard-hit northern regions.
A total of 651 new deaths were reported on Sunday - a near 20 per cent improvement on the previous 24 hours when 793 died from the virus - taking the overall death toll to 5,476 from a total of 59,138 cases. The daily rate of new infections also slowed, with a 9 per cent increase, compared with an average of about 15 per cent in the past two weeks.
The sign of a slowing of the death rate came as Italy moved to close all “non-strategic” business activities, with the country’s premier, Giuseppe Conte warning the country was facing its worst crisis since World War II and would demand drastic sacrifices from its people.
“We have no other alternative,” he said. “Time is needed to see the effects of the measures… We need to stay home.”
In his weekly prayer Pope Francis urged all Italians to follow isolation measures. “Let us do the things that the government asks us to do for the good of us all," the Pontiff said.
The crackdown came as the Russian army began flying medical help after receiving an order from President Vladimir Putin - a goodwill gesture that Moscow labelled ‘From Russia with Love’ but is likely to raise Western concerns of future Kremlin influence-seeking in Italy.
The renewed Italian efforts to contain the virus came as cases continued to spike across Europe, with France, Spain and Germany bearing the brunt of the new cases.
Across Europe countries maintained tight controls on public movement as the numbers succumbing to the virus continued to grow, with Germany announcing a ban on all gatherings of more than two people.
In France, the banks of the Seine and the grassy area at the foot of the Eiffel Tower were closed after joggers and walkers flocked there, while police stepped up checks on those found leaving home without good reason.
Nearly 40,000 people have received 135-euro spot-fines to date, with legislators voting to increase fines to 15,000-euros for those who offend twice in 15 days, rising to 37,000 euros for those who offend four times in 30 days.
Even so, the government is facing demands from medical unions for even tougher measures, while police and emergency service workers are threatening to stop work unless more protective face-masks are made available.
Concern is also growing that work has stopped on repairing Notre-Dame while the structure remains in danger of collapse. Police arrested two looters on the abandoned site this week.
In France, with 14,485 cases and 562 deaths now confirmed, some patients from the eastern border region of Alsace were moved to hospitals in Germany and Switzerland as the local healthcare system reached capacity.
In a show of EU solidarity that has been lacking at times during this crisis, four teaching hospitals and an army hospital in the south-western German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg are to take in 10 French patients requiring ventilation.
Three Swiss cantons also volunteered six beds for overflow cases from Alsace, with Switzerland recording more more than 7,014 cases and at least 60 deaths.
In France doctors in the eastern French cities of Mulhouse and Colmar have warned that the healthcare system is at breaking point; while in the southern city of Nice near the Italian border, an 10pm to 5am curfew was imposed.
In Belgium, the health minister said she expects coronavirus restrictions to last for at least another eight weeks. Belgium has closed cafes and schools until April 5 before closing its borders and ordering non essential workers to work from home.
Spain also extended already tough controls, with the country’s premier Pedro Sanchez announcing that his government would ask parliament to extend a 15-day extension to this current state of emergency.
As the economic impacts of Covid-19 continued to bite, Mr Sanchez called on the European Union to launch a Marshall Plan-style public investment programme to mitigate the consequences of the pandemic.
With the rest of Europe closely tracking the Italian death rates from two weeks ago, there is growing alarm that the continent will not escape the full force of the virus despite attempts to enforce lockdown measures.
Imposing the new restrictions, the Italian prime minister asked Italians to avoid panic and forming long lines in front of supermarkets, as seen in the last few days.
"There is no need for racing or queuing. Supermarkets, pharmacies, post offices and banks will remain open,” Mr Conte added. “We will slow down the country’s productive engine, but we will not stop it.”
Italy has been under an almost-total lockdown for about two weeks now, but local governors and mayors have criticised the government's measures for not being sufficient.
The Lombardy region has introduced the most stringent rules, banning all outdoor activities, open-air markets and all works on building sites, excluding only the essential ones.
In a sign of how serious the crisis has become, a government call for an additional task force of 300 doctors to help struggling hospitals and clinics received almost 8,000 responses, beating all expectations.
Some 18 Italian doctors have died from coronavirus, with France announcing the first death of a medical worker from the disease last night.
"We have been literally overwhelmed by the best of Italy: doctors of all ages, from 18 to 80-year-olds," said Italy's minister for Regional Affairs Francesco Boccia, adding that many had expected only around 100 responses.
In Poland, which has also shut schools, cinemas and theatres, the country went ahead with six byelections on Sunday and reaffirmed plans to hold presidential elections on May 10 despite rising pressure to postpone the poll.
The National Electoral Commission said that, by law, preparations must continue unless the President declared a state of emergency.