CAPTION: People wearing protective masks walk along a shopping street as the government prepares to bring in further restrictions over the Christmas period in attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Rome, Italy December 15, 2020. Guglielmo Mangiapane, Reuters
ROME — Italy said on Friday it would ease coronavirus restrictions across much of the country from Monday, despite warnings from health experts that the move was risky given concern over the spread of more contagious variants.
After a review of latest COVID-19 data, the health ministry said it was shifting 11 regions from orange to so-called yellow zones, giving inhabitants there greater freedom to travel and allowing bars and restaurants to reopen during the day.
In all, 16 regions will be in the lowest-risk yellow zone, and just four regions -- Puglia, Sardinia, Sicily and Umbria -- in the orange zone, together with the northern Bolzano province. Nowhere in Italy will be classified as a red zone, which brings with it stringent curbs on travel and business.
Italy has registered almost 88,000 coronavirus-related deaths since the disease first came to light last February -- the second highest toll in Europe after Britain and the sixth highest in the world.
After squashing the first wave last summer, Italy initially struggled to contain a second wave of contagions.
However, daily cases have fallen some 36% from their peak in November, according to Reuters data, while deaths have held steady in a range of 400-500 a day.
The health ministry says the closely watched virus reproduction rate, dubbed 'r', has fallen beneath 1 across most of the country.
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Some experts say this is not the time to relax the rules, given cases of the more transmissible variant first detected in Britain have been found in the country.
"This opening and closing of regions is a slow torture ... we need a real lockdown or else we will find ourselves in the dramatic position that Spain and Portugal are now experiencing," Walter Ricciardi, a health ministry adviser, said this week.
The technical committee advising the health ministry, while acknowledging there had been an improvement in the risk level, said on Friday: "The epidemic remains in a delicate phase and a new rapid increase in the number of cases is possible in the coming weeks."