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Coronavirus: Spain declares state of emergency as France shuts bars and restaurants

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Passengers use the escalators of an empty subway station, in Bilbao, northern Spain,
Passengers use the escalators of an empty subway station, in Bilbao, northern Spain,   -   Copyright  Alvaro Barrientos/Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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Spain has declared a state of emergency over coronavirus and ordered people to stay at home unless it's for work or food shopping.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez made the move in a televised address after the country became one of Europe's worst-hit for COVID-19.

It came less than an hour after his French counterpart, Edouard Philippe, introduced tough new restrictions in France.

He announced bars, restaurants and other non-essential outlets would close in a bid to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Earlier on Saturday evening, Italy revealed its death toll from the virus had climbed again, up 175 in a day.

But it's down on the record 250 new victims announced on Friday.

Rome reported new infections soared by more than 3,000 in the last 24 hours, taking it beyond 21,000 cases.

The country, per capita of population, is the worst-hit in the world. It also has the highest death rate per 1,000 infections.

At a glance: key coronavirus developments

France closes bars and restaurants... but election goes ahead

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced on Saturday that — from midnight — all bars, restaurants, nightclubs, cinemas and other non-essential outlets would close.

He called on the French to have more discipline in fighting the pandemic, which has caused 5,000 infections and 91 deaths in the country, as of Saturday.

Food shops, pharmacies, banks, newsagents and petrol stations would not be affected by the closure order, he added.

Also unaffected are local elections that get underway on Sunday. The second round of voting is set to take place in a week's time.

"I say this with seriousness: we must all show more discipline in the application of these measures," insisted Philippe.

"What we have to do at the moment is simply to avoid gathering as much as possible, limit friendly and family gatherings, use public transport only to go to work and only if the physical presence at work is essential, only go out of your home to do essential shopping, do some exercise or vote," he said.

Philippe deplored having "seen too many people in cafes, restaurants".

"I would be happy to see it in normal times, but for a few weeks it is not what we have to do," he added, noting that "the first measures taken to limit gatherings were imperfectly applied".

Italy applause for medical staff

The silence engulfing Italy as its lockdown continues was pierced on Saturday as people came onto their balconies to applaud medical staff.

But there was more bad news in the early evening when the latest figures came out: 175 deaths and 3,000 new infections in 24 hours.

Earlier, new measures had been introduced in Milan and Rome as parks, public gardens and playgrounds were shut.

The country has been on nationwide lockdown since March 9 and citizens require "certified, serious and justifiable" reasons for travelling.

Authorities have checked 157,000 people, 7,000 of which will be prosecuted for failing to comply with restrictions, according to Italy's interior ministry.

Healthcare staff are reportedly exhausted and under pressure, especially in Lombardy, the worst-hit region with 966 deaths.

The main daily newspaper in the Bergamo region, Eco di Bergamo, has published eleven pages of classified ads for deaths.

In Rome, several hospitals are frantically setting up new ICU and sub ICU units to face the COVID-19 emergency in the Lazio region.

The Gemelli University Hospital is creating 21 new intensive care unit (ICU) beds and 28 new general hospitalisation beds, as part of the new Columbus Covid 2 Hospital, an area fully dedicated to the COVID-19 cases in order to support the regional health hub to contain the pandemic.

Once completed, Columbus Covid 2 Hospital will have 74 new beds and 59 ICU beds: 20 doctors and 65 nurses working on ordinary hospitalisations while 48 anaesthetists and 180 nurses will be committed to intensive care.

The Columbus Covid 2 Hospital will begin operating as of March 16.

Europe new 'epicentre' of the pandemic

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday that the continent — where more countries have declared a national state of emergency over COVID-19 — is now the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic.

"More cases are now being reported every day [in Europe] than were being reported by China at the height of its epidemic," director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

He said 5,000 people have now died of the virus, calling it "a tragic milestone," and urged governments to implement social distancing measures to slow the spread.

"Do not let this fire burn," he said. "Isolate the sick."

EU divided over border measures

EU President Ursula von der Leyen has condemned some European countries for introducing blanket travel bans and border closures in response to coronavirus, saying: 'The single market has to function'.

Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are among the nations forbidding entry to anyone arriving from Italy or without a certificate of health.

"It is not good when member states take unilateral action because it always causes a domino effect and that prevents urgently-needed medical equipment from reaching patients and hospitals," she said.

"It amounts to the reintroduction of internal borders at a time when solidarity between member states is needed."

She made the comments as she announced new Europe-wide guidelines on health checks at border crossings and the suspension of rules forbidding state aid as part of a €37 billion rescue package to fight the impact of COVID-19.

The pandemic is "a major shock" for Europe's economy, she said, "but we must work together to ensure it is as short and as limited as possible."

Von der Leyen said she understood the pressure on countries to protect themselves from the spread of coronavirus.

"Certain controls may be justified but general travel bans are not seen as being the most effective by the WHO," she said. "Moreover, they have a strong social and economic impact, they disrupt people's lives and business across the borders concerned. Any measure that is taken must be proportionate."

She said: "I want to be very clear — the single market has to function."

European health systems at 'high' risk

The EU warned that healthcare systems across Europe are at "high" risk of being overwhelmed by coronavirus as the death toll in Italy surged past 1,000 and financial markets suffered their worst losses on record.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) urged countries to begin prioritising cases to protect the elderly and vulnerable.

"A rapid shift from containment to a mitigation approach is required" ahead of an expected spike in cases, it said. "The risk of healthcare system capacity being exceeded in the EU/EEA and the UK in the coming weeks is considered high."