Italian government closes St. Peter’s Basilica and square, due to coronavirus

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It was a first for Francis, who was unable to make his usual address from a window overlooking the square because of fears of coronavirus contagion among the crowds below.

"I am close by the prayer of the people who are suffering from the current epidemic of coronavirus and of all those who care for them", underlined Francis, himself affected for ten days by a commone cold.

Pope Francis urged Catholic priests on Tuesday to "have the courage" to go out and help those sickened by the novel coronavirus, hours after Italy was placed on a nationwide lockdown.

"Necessities" such as grocery shopping are allowed but it is unclear whether a clerical visit would belong to that category.

Public transport will remain operational, but Conte says he wants as many people as possible to stay at home.

However, the pontiff is thought to have tested negative for coronavirus last week.

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The killer bug has infected more than 8,000 and killed 291 in Iran, making it one of the deadliest outbreaks outside of China. The outbreak has prompted authorities to temporarily release around 70,000 prisoners to contain the spread of the illness.

Francis has enjoyed generally good health, although he had part of one lung removed as a younger man.

Pictures released by the Vatican showed the bishops seated in armchairs spaced a metre (three feet) apart, in keeping with government regulations aimed at fighting an illness that has killed 366 people in Italy in just over two weeks.

St Peter's Square, the centrepiece of the Vatican, was nearly empty today with only a few dozen people walking around, majority without masks.

The discovery worsened the prospects of the virus having already spread further in the capital of Italy, since most Vatican employees live in Rome and those who live in the Vatican frequently enter and leave the city-state.

It was also awaiting the results of a second person who came in contact with a virus carrier at an event organised by the Vatican at the start of the month.

The number of dead in Italy also increased by 97 to 463 - majority elderly with previous ailments.

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