Pope Francis delivers blessing over an empty St Peter's Square

The Pope made a blessing over an eerily empty St Peter’s Square as Italy remained in lockdown over coronavirus.

Pope Francis for the second Sunday delivered his noon remarks from inside the Apostolic Library at the Vatican.

He praised people who might risk contagion to help the poor and homeless.

The Vatican later confirmed Holy Week ceremonies would take place without the ‘physical presence of the faithful.’

It said until April 12, when Easter Sunday is celebrated this year, all the general audiences on Wednesday as well as Francis’s weekly Sunday noon prayer will be streamed online.

Among popular Holy Week ceremonies is the Good Friday Way of the Cross torchlit procession at Rome’s Colosseum.

Holy Week ceremonies usually draw tens of thousands of people to Rome but, with Italy being the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak, tourism in the country has vanished.

Italian authorities voiced growing concern on Sunday over how much longer the strained health systems in northern regions worst hit by the coronavirus could cope with the relentless rise in new cases.

While the virus has begun spreading rapidly across Europe, Italy remains the second most heavily affected country after China, where the virus first emerged.

With more than 21,000 cases and 1,441 deaths by Saturday, its experience has offered an alarming example for other European countries which have begun seeing sharp rises in cases over recent days.

Lombardy, the heavily populated area around the financial capital Milan, has been Italy’s worst-affected region with 966 deaths and 11,685 confirmed cases, more than half the national total.

The health systems there and in other rich northern regions like Emilia Romagna and Veneto at the epicentre of the Italian outbreak are considered among the best in Europe, but have been pushed to their limits.

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