Italy closes schools in worst-hit coronavirus areas

FILE PHOTO: A closed school is seen after the southern Italian region of Campania closed schools until the end of October as part of efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Naples, Italy, October 16, 2020. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's government on Tuesday ordered the closure of all schools in areas hardest hit by COVID-19 and extended curbs already in place on businesses and movement until after Easter amid worries over new, highly contagious variants.

Italy is seeing around 15,000 new coronavirus cases per day, with the trend steadily rising and government advisors warning the health system is coming under growing strain.

A tiered colour-coded system (white, yellow, orange and red)which allows for measures to be calibrated according to infection levels in Italy's 20 regions will remain in force, with assessments revised every week.

Under the decree signed by Prime Minister Mario Draghi and effective from March 6, primary school classes in red zones - those with the toughest restrictions - will from now on be held online.

Distance learning was already mandatory for high school students in these areas.

"The English variant which is prevalent is particularly able to penetrate among the youngest age groups," Health Minister Roberto Speranza told reporters at a news conference to outline the measures. The new rules will be valid until April 6.

Draghi, who took office last month, was not present at the news conference, a break with the communications policy of his predecessor Giuseppe Conte, who always explained new government curbs in person.

Two southern regions, Basilicata and Molise, are currently red zones, meaning restaurants, bars and most shops are closed and people are allowed to leave their homes only for work, health or emergency reasons.

Nine regions are classified as orange, eight as yellow and one, the island of Sardinia, as white, with only minimal restrictions.

Along with regional rules, opening hours for bars and restaurants remain limited nationwide and a nightly curfew is still in place from 10 pm (21:00 GMT) everywhere except in Sardinia.

A ban on ski resorts - imposed before Christmas - has been extended until April, dashing the last hopes of operators to re-open their lifts.

Italy's official COVID-19 death toll stands at 98,288 - the second highest in Europe after Britain and seventh highest worldwide, with several hundreds of fatalities still recorded every day.

A ban on non-essential travel between the regions had already been extended until March 27.

The government offered some hope for lockdown-weary Italians, decreeing that cinemas and theatres will be able to reopen from the end of March in low-risk yellow zones.

(editing by Gavin Jones)

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