Italy on Monday logged 318 deaths from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, putting its tally at 100,103 and making it the second country after the UK to pass the grim milestone of 100,000 fatalities from the disease.
New Prime Minister Mario Draghi warned of further grief in the coming days as hospitalisations jumped.
One year ago, Italy imposed the first coronavirus lockdown of any European country but now, after months of a plateau in daily cases, there has been a steady climb in new infections.
And experts say the country should be braced for a new peak of infections in about two weeks, warning that daily cases could reach as high as 40,000 unless more severe restrictions of citizens’ movement and activities are swiftly put into place.
In response to the rising cases of COVID-19, the authorities are placing three more regions under tighter restrictions.
Two in the north of the country – Friuli Venezia Giulia and Veneto – will be raised to orange zones. While the Campania region, which includes Naples, will be re-classified as a red zone, the highest-risk level.
Among the hard-hit places in Italy is the Milan suburb of Bollate, where the virus swept through a nursery school and an adjacent elementary school with alarming speed. In a matter of just days, 45 children and 14 staff members tested positive.
Genetic analysis confirmed it was the highly contagious variant first identified in England late last year. The surge is leading to new restrictions across the continent.
Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, has said the spread of variants is driving an increase in infections in Europe increase, but so is “the opening of society, when it is not done in a safe and a controlled manner.”
The British variant is spreading significantly in 27 European countries monitored by WHO and is dominant in at least 10 by the agency’s count: Britain, Denmark, Italy, Ireland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Israel, Spain and Portugal.
What’s the situation in the rest of Europe?
Elsewhere in Europe, the pandemic blowing hot and cold, with some countries easing coronavirus restrictions on Monday while others tighten lockdown rules.
Schools are open again in England, while more trade is being allowed in Germany as of Monday but in Finland, Hungary and parts of Italy new restrictions are being put in place.
Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, the prime minister announced on Monday that there would be no major relaxation of measures currently in placewith a curfew now set to remain in place until at least March 30.
In Greece, discontent led to clashes on Sunday between police and residents of an Athens suburb. Police used tear gas to disperse around 500 people who had gathered late in the day in a local square to protest against an earlier incident.
Finland has not hesitated in introducing new restrictions, including the closure of bars and restaurants from Monday. The same measures are being imposed in Hungary, which has been confronted with a resurgence of the epidemic: schools, as well as most shops and businesses, are due to close.
In France, part of the north of the country experienced its first weekend under lockdown, a measure due to last for four weeks in the battle to contain the British variant of the coronavirus which has been particularly virulent in the Pas-de-Calais region.
Europe recorded 1 million new coronavirus cases last week, an increase of 9% from the previous week and a reversal that ended a six-week decline, according to the World Health Organization.