The Italian government has placed a dozen towns in emergency quarantine and closed schools and universities across northern Italy after the number of reported coronavirus infections topped 100 on Sunday, in the largest outbreak outside Asia.

Italian authorities said on Sunday that the total infection count had reached 132. Ninety of the cases are located in Lombardy where two elderly people have died in the outbreak.

Other cases include 25 in Veneto, including two in Venice, two in Emilia-Romagna and one reported case each in Lazio and Piedmont. Ansa, the Italian newswire, reported on Sunday that there were suspected but unconfirmed cases in Milan and the region of Umbria.

People have been barred from leaving the affected towns in the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto unless they have special permission, under measures announced by Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte on Saturday. Public gatherings and events were suspended in Milan and Venice.

Mr Conte said Italy had adopted “rigorous and meticulous controls”.

The measures were introduced in Italy as Chinese president Xi Jinping said the virus would have a “relatively big impact on the economy and society” in China.

People queue at a supermarket in one of the quarantined areas in northern Italy
People queue at a supermarket in one of the quarantined areas in northern Italy © Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

“The epidemic situation is still severe and complex, and prevention and control work is in the most difficult and critical stage,” Mr Xi said.

The virus could knock 0.4 percentage points off China’s 2020 gross domestic product, reducing its annual economic growth to 5.6 per cent, IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva said on Saturday. That would reduce global GDP growth by 0.1 percentage points, she said.

However, this relatively optimistic forecast is based on the assumption that China’s economy will return to normal in the second quarter. The impact on growth will be “more protracted” if the spread of the virus lasts longer and is more widespread, Ms Georgieva added.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Sunday that the outbreak had reached a “crucial watershed” and “the next few days will be a very important critical moment”.

Bank of Japan governor Haruhiko Kuroda said on Sunday that it will ease monetary policy if the economic impact of coronavirus is substantial enough for a stimulus to be needed, while G20 finance ministers — who met in Riyadh this weekend — said they stood ready to take action to boost the global economy if necessary, noting that “downside risk persists”.

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Lombardy is home to Italy’s financial capital Milan, and together with Veneto the two regions account for 30 per cent of the country’s gross domestic output. Any prolonged disruption there is likely to affect the national economy, which is already on the brink of recession.

Schools and universities across Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia-Romagna will be closed this week and the final two days of Venice’s annual carnival on Monday and Tuesday have been cancelled because of the outbreak, Italian officials said on Sunday. All public events in Veneto, including sporting fixtures, have been cancelled for at least a week.

Several Serie A football fixtures, including Inter Milan’s match against Sampdoria, have been suspended, and some large Italian companies, including the bank UniCredit, have instructed employees in the affected towns not to come into work.

Health authorities are struggling to work out how the outbreak started. The first cases were announced on Friday and doctors do not know the source of the illness. The World Health Organization’s European regional director Hans Kluge expressed concern at the upsurge in new cases and a lack of clarity over its spread, and said on Twitter that he was sending a team to Italy “to learn about virus spread and [how to] contain it”.

A security guard wearing a protective face mask stands guard as masked and costumed people walk near San Marco square in Venice
A security guard wearing a protective face mask stands guard as masked and costumed people walk near San Marco square in Venice © Abir Sultan/EPA/Shutterstock

Among the affected towns in Lombardy are Codogno, Castiglione d’Adda and Casalpusterlengo. Residents in all three towns, which lie to the south-east of Milan, were told to stay indoors on Friday after the first coronavirus cases were diagnosed in the area.

The special measures have been enforced across an area with a population of about 50,000 people. Residents have been instructed by the Italian government to stay in their homes and the country’s civil protection agency has passed an emergency decree. Those who break the instruction risk fines or imprisonment.

Fashion designer Armani said it would hold an empty show in Milan on Sunday, the final day of the city’s fashion week. The event will instead be livestreamed online. MIDO, the world’s largest eyewear trade fair, which is due to take place in Milan at the end of February, said it was suspending the event until June as a result of the outbreak.

Spectators and journalists at a fashion show in Milan
Spectators and journalists at a fashion show in Milan © Antonio Calanni/AP

Brussels is on alert over the Italian situation, which the European Commission said it was watching “very closely”.

Stella Kyriakides, EU health commissioner, praised Italian authorities for their “swift action and transparent communication”, including taking necessary measures to trace and contain the spread of the virus.

She said the commission stood ready to provide support to Italy and was in touch with other relevant bodies including the World Health Organization and the EU’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

“We are working closely with member states to ensure that EU health systems are equipped and ready, including the launch of a joint procurement to support the access to the personal protective equipment that may be needed,” she said. “It is only together that we can address this situation.”

The bloc’s economic affairs commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said there was “no need to panic”.

French health minister Olivier Véran said on Sunday that new cases of coronavirus in France were “very likely” and health authorities were ready in case of an epidemic, adding he was “particularly watchful” of the situation in Italy.

Luca Zaia, regional governor of Veneto, said the rapid spread of the virus showed that local-to-local transmission had occurred and it would no longer be sufficient to try to isolate travellers from China to stem the outbreak.

Giulio Gallera, a Lombardy councillor for welfare, tried to calm worried locals.

“The message we want to give is that in the area of the outbreak, the measures taken are efficient and positive,” he told reporters. “The aim is to contain the situation as much as possible.”

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Additional reporting by Reuters and Michael Peel in Brussels

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