Italy PM calls for unity amid virus crisis

Daily coronavirus infection figures in Italy have doubled in little more than a week.
Daily coronavirus infection figures in Italy have doubled in little more than a week.

Italy needs unity to face a "rapidly worsening" coronavirus pandemic, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte says amid record infection figures and growing social unrest.

Even as daily virus cases have risen to nearly 27,000, the country has been rocked by protests - some violent - against newly tightened restrictions.

"This... is really the time to stay united, all the more given the suffering, economic suffering, psychological distress, anger, anguish and concern felt by many of our citizens," Conte told parliament.

Daily infection figures have doubled in little more than a week, and reached 26,831 on Thursday, taking the total infections tally to 616,595.

The number of intensive care patients has risen to more than 1600 compared to fewer than 1000 seven days ago while the daily death toll from COVID-19 has returned above 200, as it last was in mid-May.

On Monday, the Italian government imposed the tightest restrictions since the end of the country's earlier lockdown in June, in an attempt to contain the escalating crisis.

Bars and restaurants were ordered to shut at 6pm every day; gyms, pools, cinemas, theatres and concert halls closed and high schools were told to conduct online classes for at least 75 per cent of students.

Peaceful protests by businesses and workers affected by mandatory closures - including cinema and theatre staff, taxi drivers and restaurant owners - have taken place in several cities.

But there has also been street violence - most recently in Genoa, Palermo and Verona - mostly blamed on radical political activists, football hooligans and criminal groups.

Professor Franco Locatelli, head of Italy's Higher Health Council and a member of the panel of experts advising the government on the pandemic, said the situation was serious but not yet critical.

"At this point, the system is still holding up and, in my opinion, also thanks to the measures taken, we have a chance to contain the spread," he told the Foreign Press Association in Rome.

Locatelli said "18-20 per cent" of intensive care places are occupied, with about 5000 beds still free, and overall capacity could be extended if needed.

Nevertheless, last week the National Health Institute warned that on current pandemic trends there was a "high probability" of some regions running out of hospital beds "in a very short time".

In several cities, including Genoa, Milan and Rome, there have been reports of ambulance drivers having to wait hours outside hospitals before being allowed to hand over COVID-19 patients.

Australian Associated Press