The coronavirus death toll in Italy’s worst-hit region has surpassed 3,450 in the last 24 hours after a rise of 360 fatalities in Lombardy.
Ministers in Rome have been forced to plunge all 60million citizens into lockdown, while ordering all non-essential businesses in the country to shut amid the Covid-19 outbreak.
The pandemic has taken a choke-hold on everyday life, with even Pope Francis retreating indoors to make his weekly address via videolink.
But despite Italy’s clampdown on person-to-person contact, the death toll spiralled yesterday from 739 to 4,825 nationwide, marking the deadliest day for a country in the global pandemic so far.
Britain’s coronavirus death toll has jumped to match the number of fatalities recorded in Italy two weeks ago, fanning fears the UK is just a fortnight away from being plunged into an equally grim crisis.
The amount of deaths in the UK today jumped to 281, mirroring the figure in Italy on March 7.
And chilling statistics reveal that the UK’s trajectory is even outstripping that of Italy, which recently surpassed China in suffering the world’s biggest death toll.
Scientists are also forecasting that Britain is braced to follow Italy’s rapid spike in cases.
Looking across the continent, the dire situation unfolding in Italy has set alarm bells ringing in the UK which was far slower to enforce robust distancing measures.
Chilling statistics reveal that the UK’s trajectory is even outpacing that of Italy, prompting the government and scientists to double down on their calls for social distancing.
The outbreak has taken a choke-hold on everyday life, with even Pope Francis retreating indoors to make his weekly address via videolink as St Peter’s square lies empty (pictured)
Professor Francois Balloux, from University College London, forecast the UK was braced to go the same way as Italy.
He said: ‘The trajectory of the epidemic in the UK is so far roughly comparable to the one in Northern Italy, but with the epidemic in Northern Italy two to three weeks ahead of the situation in the UK’, according to the Telegraph.
‘It is [also] possible that a lockdown strategy similar to the one imposed in Northern Italy may be adopted by the UK and other countries at some point in the future.’
But while implementing draconian isolation measures has not prevented the catastrophic crisis across the continent, UK experts insist that social distancing is ‘paramount’ to fight the outbreak.
Professor Jason Leitch, national clinical director for Scotland, told BBC Breakfast this morning: ‘You can be certain that the United Kingdom is learning as a four-country collective from all of these countries who are working on this.
‘And what we’ve learned, is that social distancing is completely crucial. Crucial to protect you and I, but more importantly crucial to protect our elderly parents or those with pre-existing disease’.
The British government were slower to enforce preventative measures in response to the global pandemic, initially standing firm against a tide of European action which saw schools, pubs and restaurants close.
But as Covid-19 threatened to ‘overwhelm’ the NHS, Boris Johnson has tacked to order an effective shutdown.
The goal, which he repeatedly hammers home at daily Number 10 press conferences, is to ‘flatten the curve’ of the rate of infections so the NHS does not creak under the load of fresh cases.
An Italian army vehicle patrols during a lockdown against the spread of coronavirus disease
The Prime Minister has laid bare the gravity of the situation, and revealed the UK should be braced to be pounded with an Italian-like situation.
Mr Johnson said: ‘The numbers are very stark and they are accelerating. We are only a matter of weeks – two or three – behind Italy.
‘The Italians have a superb health care system. And yet their doctors and nurses have been completely overwhelmed by the demand.
‘The Italian death toll is already in the thousands and climbing. Unless we act together, unless we make the heroic and collective national effort to slow the spread – then it is all too likely that our own NHS will be similarly overwhelmed.’
Yet while the government has begun to mirror the shutdown in Italy, it has stopped short of confining people to their homes. And Britain is still lagging behind in carrying out testing of suspected cases.
A banner reading ‘Civil hospital workers: stay strong, guys!’ hangs on the monument in front of the entrance of the Venetian hospital, after Italy tightened the lockdown measures
A person walks in a near-empty Venice after Italy tightened the lockdown measures to combat the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak
People buy cigarettes in an almost empty Venice today after Italy tightened the lockdown measures amid the pandemic
The UK’s daunting milestone comes just days after Italy overtook China as the country with the most deaths after suffering a total of 4,825 fatalities. Pictured: Facilities in Rome, Italy
But the crisis is underlining how health services in northern Italy have been overwhelmed by the pandemic, with doctors describing hospitals in crisis and many medics working from makeshift tents. Pictured: Patient in an intensive care unit in Bergam
When their first cases – two Chinese tourists – were recorded in late January, the Italians scrambled to screen all those feared to have been contaminated.
In stark contrast, while the UK has ramped up testing, typically only peoples who have gone to hospital have been tested.
So while official amount of recorded cases is 5,683, the government last week said the true figure could be as high as 50,000.
The latest official figures released on Saturday showed the number of people across the UK who have died after testing positive for Covid-19 has risen to 281.
Italy was at this stage just two weeks ago but has since overtaken China as the country with the most deaths after suffering a total of 4,825 fatalities.
Italian authorities have been ordering citizens to stay indoors for weeks, with schools and universities shut, shops closed except for grocery stores and pharmacies, and heavy restrictions on travel.
But the crisis is underlining how health services in northern Italy have been overwhelmed by the pandemic, with doctors describing hospitals in crisis and many medics working from makeshift tents.
Earlier this week a visiting Chinese Red Cross team criticised the failure of Italians to fully quarantine and take the national lockdown seriously.
The Prime Minister was eventually forced to close all pubs, restaurants, cinemas and theatres after people continued to flout social distancing regulations but it is not yet known what impact this will have
There have been similar flouting of home confinement rules in Britain which prompted the government’s chief scientific adviser begged young people to stop going out.
Sir Patrick Vallance slammed young people’s complacency and said ‘mixing’ in bars and restaurants ‘needs to stop’ because it is allowing the disease run rampant.
Sir Patrick warned a coronavirus vaccine was still at least six months away and said the only way the outbreak could be delayed until then was if everyone stuck to the Government’s tough new social restrictions.
His plea came after Britons were filmed partying into the early hours in packed pubs and nightclubs around the country this week, defying ministers.
It eventually forced the Prime Minister’s unprecedented announcement on Friday that all pubs, restaurants, cinemas and theatres are to shut in the latest move to combat the disease but it is not yet known what impact this will have.
The medieval Italian town where citizens can only leave their homes to go to work, medical appointments, the pharmacy or to buy food
From Kevin Buckley in Cremona, northern Italy, for the Mail on Sunday
In the medieval town of Cremona, an hour south-east of Milan, the emergency decree is biting hard.
Citizens are allowed out of their homes to go to work, medical appointments, the pharmacy, or to buy food. Nothing else.
They must download a Government-produced form to self-certify their reason for being outside and anyone stopped by the police without a ‘DPCM’ is ordered to sign one there and then. False declarations are punishable by fines or even imprisonment.
On Friday, Prime Minister Conte (pictured) banned physical exercise outdoors and travel to second homes
The first week of lockdown saw machine-gun toting Carabinieri carry out 140,000 spot checks country wide. Some 20,000 were caught without valid reason to be out.
For a notoriously unruly people, this past fortnight has seen millions of Italians learning regulations which cut to the heart of their enviable way of life. As the death toll has risen, people have begun taking the restrictions much more seriously.
But the Governors of both Lombardy and its neighbouring region of Veneto have grown increasingly strident in their exhortations for citizens to ‘restare a casa’ – stay at home.
On Friday, Prime Minister Conte responded by banning physical exercise outdoors and travel to second homes. Taking the dog out is still permitted, but only to ‘carry out its physiological necessities’.
In normal times, Cremona is referred to as the home of Stradivarius; today is known for being just 15 miles from the initial outbreak.
The town’s schools were the first thing to go. Now the Cremonese have lost their beloved passeggiata evening stroll. Night-time disinfectant trucks were carpet-spraying those same deserted streets last week.
The first week of lockdown saw machine-gun toting Carabinieri carry out 140,000 spot checks country wide. Pictured: Italian army soldiers patrol streets after being deployed in Lombardy
Supermarkets in Italy have generally avoided panic buying by assuring normal opening times and re-stocking shelves at speed.
At the busy Famila supermarket in central Cremona, a rigid door policy of one-out one-in was working perfectly on Saturday morning. Coupled with a ‘one person per family’ rule, it meant an absence of crowds inside, and no extra security.
Large signs exhorting people to respect the Decree’s one-metre ‘distanza di sicurezza’ – safety distance – were superfluous, as queuers afforded each other three metres, before using the obligatory handgel at the entrance. Some stores insist on facemasks for customer
Check-out staff are masked and gloved, and avoid chit chat while shoppers observe a genteel new etiquette as they try to respect respect each other’s personal ‘exclusion zones’.
There is no rationing, although small bottles of hand sanitiser are now capped at three per person. Yeast is in short supply as Italian women re-discover ‘nonna’s habit of making home-made pasta and bread.
The reality beneath it all is brutal: these measures are in place to halt ‘la strage dei nonni’ – the massacre of the granddads. Three quarters of victims are men and the median age of victims is 82.
The entire Lombardy region came down to its last three dozen intensive care beds until patients were transferred elsewhere in Italy.
Eighty per cent of daily arrivals at Cremona’s large modern Ospitale Maggiore are COVID19 cases, causing 30-hour waits in its overwhelmed Accident and Emergency department. Exhausted medics have been making internet videos pleading with people to stay indoors.
Deeply-held deathbed traditions are being denied to infected patients. Anguished relatives cannot visit. Patients are reportedly being left to die alone without rosary beads being placed between their hands. Such things hit hard in Catholic Italy.
An hour-long nationwide ‘reading of the rosary’ was held on Thursday night, presented by the Pope on TV2000, the national religious channel.
It has been an astonishing fortnight, concluding as the Governor of Lombardy called for the government in Rome to authorise sending troops onto the streets.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS?
What is the coronavirus?
A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.
The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.
Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.
The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.
Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals.
‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses).
‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’
The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.
By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.
The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000.
Where does the virus come from?
According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.
The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.
Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat.
A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.
However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.
Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.
‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’
So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it?
Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.
It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.
Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.
Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.
‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’
If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die.
‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.
‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’
How does the virus spread?
The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.
It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.
Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person.
What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?
Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.
If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.
In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.
Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why.
What have genetic tests revealed about the virus?
Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world.
This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.
Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.
However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.
This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.
More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.
How dangerous is the virus?
The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.
Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.
However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.
Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.
Can the virus be cured?
The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.
Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.
No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.
The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.
Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.
People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.
And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).
However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.
Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?
The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’.
Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.