Pope tells priests to go out and meet the coronavirus sick

Pope Francis celebrates a daily mass alone in the Santa Marta chapel at the Vatican, as part of precautionary measures against the spread of the new coronavirus, on March 10, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Pope Francis urged Catholic priests on Tuesday (March 10) to "have the courage" to go out and help those sickened by the coronavirus, hours after Italy was placed on a nationwide lockdown.

"Let us pray to the Lord also for our priests, that they may have the courage to go out and visit the sick... and to accompany the medical staff and volunteers in the work they do," the pontiff said during a mass in Vatican City.

St Peter's Square in the Vatican - in the centre of the Italian capital Rome - was almost empty on Tuesday, with only a few dozen people walking around, most of them without masks.

The Italian government has asked for people not to travel if they can avoid it and to avoid contact with the sick.

Officials passed a decree late on Monday extending nationwide restrictive measures that had been put in place at the weekend in the hardest-hit northern regions.

The restrictions - including checkpoints on roads and in railway stations - are set to remain until April 3.

Italy is the epicentre of the European virus outbreak with more than 9,000 cases and 463 deaths so far.

Globally, more than 110,000 cases have been recorded in over 100 countries, although health experts are hopeful that the virus has peaked in China, where it originated late last year.

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