Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte says Italy plans to restrict movement throughout the entire country, locking down some 60 million people in an unprecedented move to contain the coronavirus.

The decision, aimed at dramatically reducing travel within one of Europe's most connected countries, shows the once-unthinkable steps that a Western democracy is willing to take amid the threat of the accelerating virus.

Conte said a new Government decree will require all people in Italy to demonstrate a need to work, health conditions or other limited reasons to travel outside the areas where they live.

The restrictions will take effect on Tuesday and like those in northern Italy will last until April 3.

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The move indicates that Italian policymakers have come to believe that hard line measures are the best way slow the virus.

Entering last weekend, Italy had imposed relatively minor movement restrictions — applying to 11 small towns with a total of 50,000 people — near the epicenter of the outbreak. Then, early Sunday, Italy took its first drastic move against the virus, with Conte announcing the plan to lock down areas around the virus's epicenter in the north, with travel restrictions applying to 16 million people.

The decision, announced by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, comes just a day after Italy imposed similar restrictions on one-quarter of the country. Photo / AP
The decision, announced by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, comes just a day after Italy imposed similar restrictions on one-quarter of the country. Photo / AP

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People rush to board trains in Italy's North as it descends into lockdown. Video / AP / @LegaSalvini

But it is now taking the step to cut off its citizens, no matter where they live, from most kinds of travel, including to other countries and from one region to the other.

There is a sense in Italy that the country is facing its greatest emergency since World War II. In recent days, the number of people to fall ill has continued to accelerate, with active cases reaching nearly 8,000. In less than three weeks, 463 people have died.

But Conte said Monday that it was necessary to expand the restrictions to the entire country.

Gondoliers wait for customers in Venice, Italy as tourism is impacted by the spread of coronavirus in the nation. Photo / AP
Gondoliers wait for customers in Venice, Italy as tourism is impacted by the spread of coronavirus in the nation. Photo / AP

"I'm about to take a measure that we can summarize with 'I'm staying home,'" Conte said in introducing the changes.

The premier also took to task the young people in much of Italy who have been gathering at night to drink and have a good time during the public health emergency that started on February 21.

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"This night life...we can't allow this anymore," Conte said.

Pubs had been closed in northern Italy, with eateries and cafes also ordered to close at dusk. Now that crackdown is extended to the entire country.

As part of the announcement, Conte said that schools would also be canceled until April 3.

"Our habits need to change," Conte said. "They need to change now."

Conte described it as a "national emergency".

"Without underestimating it, we have chosen transparency, we are acting with lucidity, courage and determination," he said. "We want to contain the spread of the contagion and avoid overloading the hospitals."

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The World Health Organisation has said there are now more than 100,000 people across the globe infected with the COVID-19 strain of coronavirus.

- with AP