Italy's coronavirus death toll surged by 969 yesterday in the biggest one-day jump that any country has suffered so far.

The hundreds of new deaths bring Italy's total from 8165 to 9134, by far the highest in the world and an increase of 11.9 per cent since Thursday.

In another significant landmark, Italy's total infection count surpassed China's after rising by 5959 to bring the total from 80,539 to 86,948.

Nurse Abramo Pozzaglio puts on sanitation gear to deal with patients with Covid-19 at the Spedali Civili Hospital, in Brescia, Italy. Photo / AP
Nurse Abramo Pozzaglio puts on sanitation gear to deal with patients with Covid-19 at the Spedali Civili Hospital, in Brescia, Italy. Photo / AP

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China has racked up 81,897 cases while the United States has the highest tally in the world with 92,932.

However, the percentage rise in new infections in Italy - 7.4 per cent - was the lowest yet.

The head of Italy's national health institute warned today that "we haven't reached the peak and we haven't passed it".

Italy's national lockdown is already in its third week but school closures and a ban on non-essential activities are likely to be extended beyond April 3.

The world also passed another grim milestone today as the global death toll reached 25,000, the majority of them in Europe.

Military trucks carrying coffins of deceased people are escorted on the highway next to Ponte Oglio, near Bergamo, one of the areas in Italy worst hit by the coronavirus. Photo / AP
Military trucks carrying coffins of deceased people are escorted on the highway next to Ponte Oglio, near Bergamo, one of the areas in Italy worst hit by the coronavirus. Photo / AP

Cases have continued to surge in Italy despite a total shutdown of everyday life which began more than two weeks ago.

The figure of 969 deaths in the last 24 hours compares with 712 deaths on Thursday, 683 on Wednesday, 743 on Tuesday and 602 on Monday.

However, the increase in new infections was only 7.4 per cent, the lowest since the contagion began to spiral in Italy.

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The government in Rome has progressively tightened the lockdown rules, banning all non-essential activities until at least next Friday.

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Franco Locatelli, who heads the council which advises the government on health matters, told reporters this deadline would need extending.

"If I had to decide using today's data, I believe it is inevitable these measures will be prolonged," he said before yesterday's figures were released.

Schools and universities were amongst the first places to be shut down, closing their doors nationwide on March 5.

Education minister Lucia Azzolina said yesterday that the current date for the order to be lifted, April 3, would also have to be extended.

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"Our aim is to ensure that students return to school only when we are completely sure that it is safe. Health is the priority," she told state broadcaster RAI.

Coffins arriving from the Bergamo area, where the coronavirus infections has led to hundreds of deaths, are being unloaded from a military truck at the cemetery of Cinisello Balsamo. Photo / AP
Coffins arriving from the Bergamo area, where the coronavirus infections has led to hundreds of deaths, are being unloaded from a military truck at the cemetery of Cinisello Balsamo. Photo / AP

Lombardy has taken the heaviest hit in Italy, accounting for around 43 per cent of cases and 60 per cent of deaths.

The crisis has left hospitals in northern Italy overwhelmed and forced doctors into unenviable life-or-death decisions over who gets access to intensive care.

The body count has also been too much for morgues and cemeteries, who have had to call in the army to take coronavirus victims away for cremation.

The head of the country's national health institute warned today that infections in Italy have yet to reach their peak.

"We haven't reached the peak and we haven't passed it," Silvio Brusaferro, told reporters.

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However, he added that there were "signs of a slowdown" in the numbers of people becoming infected.

"When the descent begins, how steep it is will depend on our behaviour," Brusaferro said.

Italy today became the second nation in 24 hours to overtake China's infection count, after the United States jumped ahead last night.

China still had a majority of world infections and deaths as recently as March 15, according to World Health Organisation figures.

Trump attributes rise coronavirus cases in the US to testing. The US now has more confirmed cases of coronavirus than any other country, with more than 85,500 positive tests. Video / BBC
Doctors work on Covid-19 patients in the intensive care unit of San Matteo Hospital, in Pavia, northern Italy. The death toll in Italy spiked yesterday. Photo / AP
Doctors work on Covid-19 patients in the intensive care unit of San Matteo Hospital, in Pavia, northern Italy. The death toll in Italy spiked yesterday. Photo / AP

But in the 12 days since then, its proportion of global deaths has fallen from 56 per cent to 13 per cent.

The coronavirus crisis has also killed 44 medics in Italy after another four died yesterday and two today, a doctor's federation says.

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The Italian Federation of Medical Professionals said the latest victims included doctors in Bergamo, Turin, Genoa, Lecco and Pesaro e Urbino.

Some 6414 medical workers have been infected, an Italian research institute says - taking them away from the health service when they are desperately needed.

The infected health workers make up nearly 8 per cent of Italy's total cases.

"What we face every day is a real war bulletin. Doctors and their families mourn their dead," said Filippo Anelli, president of the doctors' federation.

The doctors' federation has warned that the true death toll may be higher because "many doctors die suddenly, even if the cause of death is not directly attributable to the virus, because the swab is not carried out".

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website

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