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EU unity ‘out of window’ – Italy sparks Brussels fury ahead of final Council summit

Italy on Tuesday extended a COVID-19 state of emergency to March 31 and ruled that all visitors from EU countries must take a test before departure, amid concerns over the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The state of emergency, which was introduced in January last year, gives greater powers to the central government, making it easier for officials to bypass the bureaucracy that smothers much decision-making in Italy.

It was set to expire at the end of December.

The Health Ministry’s decision to impose a test on people arriving from European Union countries from December 16 to January 31 extends a requirement which was already in force for many non-EU countries.

Those who have not been vaccinated must also undergo a quarantine of five days on arrival.

The decision met with the disapproval of the European Commission, which favours common rules to travel within the bloc based on a so-called Green Pass certificate proving vaccination against the virus.

Commission vice president Vera Jourova told a news conference in Brussels: “These individual decisions of the member states will damage … the trust of the people that there are equal conditions everywhere in Europe.”

A Commission official also added on Wednesday: “All countries are obliged to inform the Commission 48 hours in advance when they impose additional restrictions.

“We have reminded the Italian authorities about this obligation.”

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The Organised Tourism Federation said the tougher rules were “a fresh blow” to the hard-hit sector and called on the government to provide “immediate and adequate compensation”.

Italy’s daily coronavirus infections are rising steadily, with 23,195 new cases reported on Wednesday, and 129 deaths.

Pressure on hospitals remains less acute than in nearby countries such as Austria and Germany, where the rise in cases in the so-called “fourth wave” of the pandemic began earlier.

Italy has registered 135,178 deaths linked to COVID-19 since its outbreak emerged in February last year, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the ninth-highest in the world.

The country has reported 5.28 million cases to date.

Patients in hospital with COVID-19 – not including those in intensive care – stood at 7,309 on Wednesday, up from 7,163 a day earlier.

There were 84 new admissions to intensive care units, down from 93 on Tuesday. The total number of intensive care patients increased to 870 from a previous 863.

Some 634,638 tests for COVID-19 were carried out in the past day, compared with a previous 776,563, the health ministry said.