Doctors battling Italy’s coronavirus emergency urged other countries yesterday to learn from their experience and impose social distancing policies before it is too late.

The intensive care ward at a hospital in Cremona has been swamped by a “tsunami” of patients in desperate need of respiratory assistance. Those who are given respirators or oxygen bubbles on their heads can take weeks in intensive care to recover, if they do. The hospital has run out of space to store bodies and has been forced to keep them in a nearby church. A new Covid-19 ward has been set up in tents in the car park and army lorries are on hand to transport corpses out of the region if crematoria and funeral services are unable to cope, as has happened in neighbouring Bergamo.

“We know what happens,” Dr Emanuela Catenacci told Sky News from an intensive care ward. “Don’t think it is happening here and it can’t happen everywhere else … because it will.”

From Bad to Worse

Italy announced tighter restrictions at the weekend as its death toll rose by a record number on Saturday and the total number of infections soared to almost 60,000. Yesterday 651 people died, a fall from 793 on Saturday, and the total number of cases rose to 59,138. Some families have preferred to keep elderly relatives at home to die rather than losing contact with them for the last days of their lives in isolation wards.

Father Aquilino Apassiti, 84, the chaplain of Pope John XXIII Hospital in Bergamo, has tried to offer consolation over the phone. “They die alone, without anyone able to come to say goodbye,” he told La Stampa newspaper. He proposed praying with the bereaved over the phone, telling one widow: “I’m here in front of your husband’s coffin. Let’s pray the Our Father together and the Lord will comfort you in your grief.” He added: “Both of us burst out crying.”

A new Covid-19 ward has been set up in tents in the car park and army lorries are on hand to transport corpses.

Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister, announced new measures in a video on Facebook in which he said Italy faced “the most difficult crisis in our post-war period.” Only activities deemed vital for national production would be allowed to continue, he said. Supermarkets, pharmacies, postal and banking services and other essential public services including transport will continue.

Calabria, in the south, ordered a complete travel ban yesterday.

In the northern regions of Lombardy and Piedmont, where the health service has been overwhelmed, the local authorities went further, ordering the closure of all public offices and non-essential private business activities. Exercise in the open air was also banned.

Up in Arms

More than 7,000 doctors volunteered to help out in the north after the civil protection department called for 300 medics to come to the assistance of their colleagues, who have been working exhausting shifts as their numbers are depleted by infection. At least 20 doctors are believed to have died so far.

“This is a real war,” said Chiara Errera, one of the volunteers. “As doctors we can’t shirk our responsibilities.”

Francesca Maria Tizzoni, 23, a nurse working in a hospital in Bergamo, described six-hour shifts without time to drink or use the lavatory. “It’s very hot under those protective suits and you sweat a lot, so you really do need water,” she said. Ms Tizzoni volunteered to serve in the John XXIII Hospital even before completing her degree. “Seeing so many patients needing the same therapy, requiring the same management, even if they are all different individuals, made a strange impression.”

“As doctors we can’t shirk our responsibilities.”

The authorities are scrambling to open new intensive care wards, commandeering a former trade fair in Milan and setting up new Covid-19 wards in army tents. A hospital in Verduno near Turin had taken almost 20 years to build and was still incomplete. It is expected to take its first 60 coronavirus patients next week.

The crisis has already stimulated ingenious technical solutions. Cristian Fracassi, an engineer who helped to use a 3D printer to make an oxygen valve for a hospital in the northern town of Chiari, has incorporated a Decathlon snorkelling mask into an improvised oxygen mask for Covid-19 patients.

In central Italy police have used drones to broadcast messages telling people to stay indoors. The hope is that the lockdown will soon start to make an impact on the growing numbers, as officials wonder how long society will be able to take the economic pain.