Italy is attempting to lock down 16 million people – more than a quarter of its population – for nearly a month to halt the relentless march of the new coronavirus across Europe.

Weddings and museums, cinemas and shopping centres are all affected by the new restrictions, which focus on a swathe of northern Italy but are disrupting daily life around the country.

Confusion reigned after the quarantine was announced, with residents and tourists from Venice to Milan trying to figure out how and when the new measures would take effect.

After mass testing uncovered more than 7,300 infections, Italy’s outbreak surged to nearly equal South Korea’s, which had been tapering off, and trailing China, where Covid-19 is in retreat.

Italy’s death toll now stands at 366.

Around the globe, more and more events were cancelled or hidden behind closed doors, from the Pope’s Sunday service to a Formula One race in Bahrain to a sumo competition in Japan, where wrestlers arrived at the arena in face masks and were required to use hand sanitiser before entering.

In Saudi Arabia, all schools and universities are to close starting on Monday, following similar moves in central China, Japan and other Gulf countries.

Questions grew about whether to maintain US presidential campaign rallies and other potential “super-spreading” gatherings of people, as the virus entered new US states.

Italian premier Giuseppe Conte signed a quarantine decree early on Sunday for the country’s prosperous north.

Areas under lockdown include Milan, Italy’s financial hub and the main city in Lombardy, and Venice, the main city in the neighbouring Veneto region.

HEALTH Coronavirus
(PA Graphics)

The extraordinary measures will be in place until April 3.

Tourists in the region, including those from abroad, are free to head home, the Italian transport ministry said, noting that airports and train stations remain open.

The Pope, who has been ill, held his Sunday blessing by video instead of in person, even though he was not directly affected by the lockdown. He described feeling like he was “in a cage”.

In China, the government locked down about 60 million people in central Hubei province in late January. Six weeks later, they are still effectively stuck.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said China’s move helped the rest of the world prepare for the virus to arrive, and WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted his support on Sunday for Italians and their “bold, courageous steps aimed at slowing the speed of the coronavirus”.

China has suffered about three quarters of the world’s 110,000 coronavirus infections and most of its 3,800 deaths.

New infections in China have levelled off, however, and most of those infected, in China and globally, have already recovered.

Infections increased in other epicentres – South Korea, Iran and especially Italy. And with a nose-dive in tourist traffic and major disruptions to supply chains worldwide, stocks struggled on Sunday. Indexes in the Middle East fell 4% to 10%.

Virus prevention measures in Seoul
South Korean army soldiers spray disinfectant as a precaution against a new coronavirus on a street in Seoul (AP)

Italy is closing all museums and archaeological sites, even those far from the lockdown zone. It suspended all weddings until April 3. The northern regions concerned by Sunday’s decree are closing cinemas and ski slopes.

Restaurants all around Italy are expected, somehow, to keep patrons 3ft away from each other.

The Vatican Museums are now closed, including the Sistine Chapel, in yet another blow to Italy’s all-important tourism industry.

Alitalia, the Italian airline that was already financially ailing before the virus, suspended all flights from Milan’s Malpensa airport starting on Monday.

Lombardy’s governor, who is in quarantine himself, sought to calm the public, discouraging hoarding and and insisting: “We’re not going to war.”

The Grand Princess
A passenger waves aboard the Grand Princess off the coast of San Francisco (AP)

Chaos erupted in the hours before Conte signed the decree, as word leaked about the planned quarantine.

In a reversal of the stereotypical north-south tensions in Italy, the governor of Puglia urged northerners to stay away and not bring virus infections down south.

“Get off at the first railway station. Don’t take planes,” Michele Emiliano said in his dramatic appeal. “Turn around in your cars, get off the pullman buses at the next stop.”

Governments across Europe tightened their rules. Bulgaria banned all indoor public events. France’s president Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s governing parties have held emergency security meetings as the number of cases in each country surpassed 1,000.

In waters around the world, the virus has left the cruise ship industry in disarray.

The Grand Princess cruise ship, where 21 people have tested positive for the virus, has idled off San Francisco for days but docked in Oakland on Monday.

The Colosseum
The Colosseum is reflected in a puddle beside a face mask in Rome (AP)

Britons on board could be on a flight back to the UK on Tuesday, while Americans will be sent to facilities around the country for testing and isolation. Canada plans to pick up more than 200 of its citizens.

The Grand Princess had a cluster of almost 20 infections during an earlier voyage that has led to one death.

Another cruise ship is in quarantine on the Nile River in Egypt with 45 confirmed virus cases. Two other ships with no confirmed cases were turned away this weekend from Malaysia and Malta amid virus fears.

The US death toll from the virus climbed to 26, with all but three victims in Washington state. Infections exceed 500, including the first case in the nation’s capital. Two members of congress – senator Ted Cruz and congressman Paul Gosar – are self-quarantining after meeting a man who was infected.

Mr Cruz said he had brief contact with the man. Mr Gosar said he had sustained contact and his office would be closed for week.

On Monday, China reported 40 new cases over the past 24 hours, the lowest level since it began publishing nationwide figures on January 20, with 22 new fatalities. China now has now recorded 80,735 total cases, among which 19,016 remain in treatment and 58,600 have been released.

China has had 3,119 deaths from Covid-19, with Italy’s 366 deaths the second worst total in the world.

South Korea reported 69 more cases, raising its total to 7,382, slightly surpassing Italy’s 7,375 as the second-worst outbreak.

North Korea, which has not reported a single case but has put thousands in quarantine and nearly closed its borders, flew dozens of diplomats and other foreigners out of the country on Monday morning.