Italy will be placed under a nationwide lockdown for much of the Christmas and New Year holiday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Friday, as the government looks to prevent a fresh surge in coronavirus cases.
The announcement ended days of indecision and wrangling within the coalition, which was split between those wanting a complete shutdown and those pressing for more limited action to help struggling businesses and to allow some family reunions.
"The situation is difficult across Europe. The virus continues to circulate everywhere," Conte told reporters.
"Our experts were seriously worried that there would be a jump in cases over Christmas. ... We therefore had to act, but I can assure you it was not an easy decision."
Under the new rules, non-essential shops will be shuttered between 24-27 December, 31 December - 3 January and 5-6 January. On those days, Italians will only be allowed to travel for work, health or emergency reasons.
However, limited visits will be allowed, for example to see elderly parents living alone. Conte said the police would not be sent into peoples' homes to check that the rules were being respected, but he called on Italians to show responsibility.
Shops will be able to open between 28-30 December and on 4 January and people will be free to leave their houses at that time. However, throughout the holiday period, all bars and restaurants must remain closed.
Conte promised compensation totalling some 645 million euros ($790 million) to help the hospitality sector which has been savaged by the 10-month health crisis.
Italy was the first Western country to be badly hit by the virus in February and as of Friday, 67,894 people had died as a result of the disease here, the highest toll in Europe.
Following a summer lull, infections soared in October, forcing new government curbs. These have since largely been loosened, but with hundreds of people still dying each day, the government has grown increasingly concerned that the looming Christmas break might spark an uncontrolled spread of the virus.
Under a decree passed early in December, movements between regions from December 21 to January 6 were already banned and ski resorts were closed during the same period, with restrictions on anyone entering Italy.