Pedestrians walk in a shopping street of Rome
Pedestrians walk in a shopping street of Rome on December 23, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

Rome: Italy has tightened restrictions to curb surging COVID-19 infections, including banning all public New Year's Eve celebrations, as daily infections hit a record high, the government said on Thursday.

Health Minister Roberto Speranza said mask wearing would be compulsory outdoors again and ordered people to use the more protective Ffp2 face masks on public transport and in public places, such as theatres, cinemas and at sports events.

In addition, concerts and open-air events will be banned until January 31, and discos and dance clubs will have to shut their doors until that date, in an effort to prevent mass socialising during the holiday period.

The announcement came on the day Italy registered a record 44,595 new coronavirus cases - an increase of more than 70% in just a week, with the infectious Omicron variant starting to flare across the country.

Deaths are also starting to creep up, rising to 168 on Thursday, the largest number since May, but they remain well below rates seen during previous infection surges thanks mainly to the large number of people vaccinated in Italy.

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Speranza said almost 89% of Italians had been vaccinated, but the government wanted to speed up delivery of third booster shots, seen as the most effective shield against the Omicron variant which is sweeping Europe and the United States.

The government will cut the waiting time for a booster following second vaccinations to four months from five.

In addition, ministers agreed to reduce the validity of COVID-19 health certificates, which are needed to access an array of places and services, in recognition of the fact that vaccine effectiveness fades over time.

As a result, from Feb. 1, the certificates, which register if someone has been vaccinated or has recently recovered from coronavirus, will only be valid for six months rather than nine at present.

Italy was the first Western country to be hit by the pandemic last year and has so far registered 136,245 deaths - the second highest tally in Europe after Britain.

However its vaccination campaign has proved one of the most effective in the world and the government has said it is determined to avoid a return to generalised lockdowns.