Italy delays reopening ski slopes over spread of variant as France prepares for ‘crisis’

Skiing industry laments last-minute shutdown while Germany steps up border restrictions

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Italy delayed reopening its ski slopes on Sunday after authorities detected more cases of a coronavirus variant first found in the south-east of England.

The Italian government opted to continue with the nationwide closure, but ski industry bosses had expected slopes and lifts to reopen on Monday.

Amateur skiing will remain banned until March 5 at the earliest, effectively wiping out the rest of the winter season and delivering a major blow to the industry.

Italy’s health ministry said about 17.8 per cent of people recently testing positive for Covid-19 in the country showed signs of the UK variant, which was detected in Kent, England, late last year.

In one of his first decisions as Italy’s new prime minister, Mario Draghi, promised to compensate the sector for economic losses incurred by the ban.

A skier (R) leaves the ski lifts of the Cima Piazzi ski resort in Isolaccia near Bormio, Italian Alps, on February 15, 2021. Italy's Health Ministry on February 14 decided to keep closed ski resorts that were due to reopen on February 15, due the progression of the coronavirus variants, until March 5, 2021, the expiry date of the government's latest decree. / AFP / MIGUEL MEDINA

The president of the Italian Winter Sports Federation, Flavio Roda, condemned the last-minute timing of the decision.

“The [ski] stations have invested a lot to prepare the slopes, hire personnel, get organised with hoteliers. A lot of money was invested and, yet again, our world is heavily penalised,” he said.

Italy has recorded Europe’s second-highest Covid-19 death toll to date after Britain, with more than 93,000 confirmed fatalities.

Meanwhile, France’s health ministry asked hospitals to enter “crisis mode” in preparation for an expected surge in coronavirus cases.

The order was made after the emergence of highly contagious variants, reported newspaper Le Journal Du Dimanche. The number of hospital beds available will increase under the latest measures, with non-urgent surgery delayed.

“This crisis organisation must be implemented in each region, regardless of the level of hospital stress, and must be operational from Thursday, February 18,” the French health authority said.

Health Minister Olivier Veran, who said the Kent variant accounted for 25 per cent of confirmed new infections in France, said the government would decide in the days to come whether tougher national restrictions were necessary.

Arnaud Fontanet, a member of the scientific council that advises the French government on Covid-19 policy, told Europe 1 radio on Saturday he feared the variant could account for the majority of new cases in the country by March.

France reported 21,231 new infections on Saturday, up from 20,701 on Friday, taking its total to 3,448,617, the sixth-highest in the world.

The country has resisted extending its lockdown in the hope that the national curfew, in place since December 15, will contain the virus.

On Sunday, Germany partially closed its borders with the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol region after a surge in coronavirus mutations, drawing a swift rebuke from the European Union.

Under the new rules, only Germans or non-German residents are allowed through and they must provide a recent negative coronavirus test, though some exceptions are permitted.

The EU, eager to avoid a return to go-it-alone pandemic responses, condemned the border restrictions.

"The fear of the coronavirus mutations is understandable," EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told Germany's Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper.

“I think it’s wrong to return to a Europe with closed borders like we had in March 2020.”