Italy says too early to change policies; UK expert hints closures may last until June
Countries in Europe are to extend lockdowns and take stricter measures to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus that has claimed over 21,000 lives across the continent.
Europe reported a total of 361,457 confirmed cases and 21,496 deaths as of Sunday, according to the World Health Organization.
Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said on Sunday that it was still far too early to change policies on the national lockdown, despite statistics from recent days that have been encouraging.
"We are still in the middle of a national lockdown, and it would be a serious mistake for us to drop our guard now," Speranza said, adding that there should be no reduction in the diligence of Italians in the coming days and weeks.
The virus had claimed 10,779 lives and infected 97,689 people in the country as of Sunday, according to health authorities.
Italian researchers are looking at whether a higher than usual number of severe pneumonia and flu cases in Lombardy in the last quarter of 2019 is a signal that the novel coronavirus might have spread beyond China earlier than previously thought.
Adriano Decarli, an epidemiologist and medical statistics professor at the University of Milan, said there had been a "significant" increase in the number of people hospitalized for pneumonia and flu in the areas of Milan and Lodi between October and December last year.
Decarli was quoted by Reuters saying: "We want to know if the virus was already here in Italy at the end of 2019, and－if yes－why it remained undetected for a relatively long period so that we could have a clearer picture in case we have to face a second wave of the epidemic."
Also on Sunday, France used two high-speed trains and a German military plane to move more than three dozen critically ill coronavirus patients to ease the pressure on overwhelmed hospitals in eastern France.
The Grand Est region was the first in the country to be hit by the virus, where hospitals are desperately adding intensive care beds to cope with the influx.
The epidemic has infected 40,174 people and killed 2,606 in France, as the country is struggling to contain "a deadly severe epidemic with a rapid-spreading contagious virus", said General Director of Health Jerome Salomon on Sunday.
Delivery of food parcels
Meanwhile, the British government is to send food parcels to people who have been asked to stay at home, and is continuing its efforts to supply frontline medical staff with personal protective equipment, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said.
He said: "We can turn the tide, (but) we all have a responsibility to protect each other."
Earlier the government's leading disease expert said the country may remain in lockdown for three months.
"We're going to have to keep these measures (the full lockdown) in place, in my view, for a significant period of time－probably until the end of May, maybe even early June. May is optimistic," said Imperial College's Professor Neil Ferguson.
Figures released on Sunday took the United Kingdom's death toll to 1,228, up 209 on the previous day.
In Moscow, Russian authorities announced a partial lockdown, ordering residents to stay at home from Monday after the number of confirmed cases in the Russian capital surpassed the 1,000 mark.
The order came days after Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin urged residents to avoid public places, non-essential travel and walks－a recommendation many ignored amid a spell of unusually warm weather over the weekend.
According to the latest order issued through Sobyanin's blog, Moscow residents will only be allowed to leave their homes for emergency medical care, work that cannot be done remotely, going to the nearest store or pharmacy, pet walking within 100 meters from the residence, and taking out the garbage.
Julian Shea in London, Ren Qi in Moscow, Xinhua and agencies contributed to this story.