Draghi honours Covid victims at 'Italy's Wuhan'

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Rome (AFP)

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi paid tribute Thursday to the more than 103,000 people who have died of Covid-19 in the country, a toll still rising by hundreds each day.

Draghi travelled to Bergamo, the northern province that became known as "Italy's Wuhan" as it became Europe's first major virus flashpoint a year ago, during a national day of mourning for the dead.

"We cannot hug each other, but this is the day in which we must all feel even closer," he said at the inauguration of a memorial park near the main hospital in the city of Bergamo.

"This place is a symbol of the pain of an entire nation," he said, before witnessing the planting of one of the park's planned 850 trees to the mournful sounds of a trumpet.

Earlier, Draghi laid a wreath at Bergamo's cemetery and observed a minute of silence, while across the nation flags flew at half mast from public buildings.

Italy chose March 18 for its annual coronavirus remembrance day to coincide with the day in 2020 when the army had to step in to carry away scores of coffins from Bergamo's overwhelmed crematorium.

The haunting images of coffin-laden camouflaged trucks crossing the city at night quickly became one of the symbols of the pandemic in Italy and beyond.

Pope Francis later also offered prayers for the victims of the pandemic, "so many people who lost their lives because of illness, and so many others who gave their lives in the service of the sick".

"May the Lord receive them and comfort their families," he tweeted.

Draghi's government is pinning its hopes on an ongoing drive to scale up national vaccination efforts, despite controversy over the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Speaking hours before the European Medicines Agency (EMA) declared the vaccine "safe and effective", the prime minister said: "Whatever its decision, the vaccination campaign will continue with the same intensity, with the same objectives."

Italy's government has set a target to triple vaccinations to 500,000 per day by mid-April, and to fully vaccinate 80 per cent of the population by mid-September.

At the same time, it put much of the country back into lockdown on Monday to contain a third wave of the virus that has put hospitals under renewed stress and claimed 431 lives on Wednesday alone.