The death toll from an outbreak of coronavirus in Italy has grown by 743 to 6,820, the head of the Civil Protection Agency has said, reversing a decline in fatalities seen over the last two days.

602 people died yesterday. which followed 650 deaths on Sunday and 793 on Saturday - the highest daily figure since the contagion came to light on 21 February.

The total number of confirmed cases in Italy rose to 69,176 from a previous 63,927, an increase of 8.2%, in line with yesterday's growth rate, the Civil Protection Agency said.

Of those originally infected nationwide, 8,326 had fully recovered compared to 7,432 the day before. There were 3,396 people in intensive care against a previous 3,204.

The hardest-hit northern region of Lombardy remained in a critical situation, with a total of 4,178 deaths and 30,703 cases. That compared with 3,776 deaths and 28,761 cases reported up to yesterday.

Positive trend reversed

Before the latest figures on coronavirus deaths were shared, Italy's top coronavirus response official said the two previous successive declines in the daily death rate could be attributed to a painful national lockdown that appeared to be finally bearing fruit.

But Angelo Borrelli also noted that the real number of infections was probably ten times higher than the official count.

The civil protection chief also said the nation of 60 million was on course to overtake China's total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in a week.

"The measures we took two weeks ago are starting to have an effect," Mr Borrelli said in an interview with the La Repubblica daily.

He said more data over the next few days will help understand "if the growth curve is really flattening".

Meanwhile the coronavirus has killed another 240 people in France, according to the country's top health official, bringing the death toll in the country from the pandemic to 1,100.

Jerome Salomon told reporters that 22,300 people had tested positive for the virus in France, with a total of 10,176 hospitalised of whom 2,516 people are in intensive care. 

Officials believe that the published number of those infected largely underestimates the real figure, as only those showing severe symptoms are usually tested.

Italian hospitals have been overwhelmed by the scale of the outbreak

Scientists believe that countries such as Spain and France are following in Italy's footsteps with a lag of a few weeks.

The numbers from the US are also similar to those of Italy's from about 20 days ago.

Most other European nations and some US states have followed Italy's example and imposed their own containment and social distancing measures designed to stop the spread.

Italy's national lockdown went into effect on 12 March and is due to expire at the end of tomorrow.

Almost everything has been either closed or banned across the country for the past two weeks.

All this makes the data that Mr Borrelli has gathered from Italy's 22 regions of crucial interest to global policy makers and medical experts.

But he and other Italian medical officials have been extremely cautious to draw any definitive conclusions from the two-day drop.

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Italy's daily deaths are still higher than those officially recorded in China at the peak of its crisis in Wuhan's central Hubei province.

They are also higher than those seen anywhere else in the world.

Italian officials are using the drop to double down on their message for everyone to stay home at all times, no matter the personal discomfort or economic pain.

Most big global banks think Italy has already entered a deep economic recession that could be more severe than anything seen in decades.

The Lombardy region around Milan that was plunged into the epicentre of the pandemic has begun imposing €5,000 fines on those outside without a good excuse.

Long lines at a Milan supermarket as the lockdown continues

Mr Borrelli said he supported the measures because it was "credible" to assume "there is one infection counted for every ten that are not".

Italy has been trying to figure out how it managed to become the global epicentre of a pandemic that began on the other side of the world.

Its 6,077 confirmed deaths are higher than those of China and third-placed Spain combined.

Mr Borrelli did not seek to blame anyone or any single factor.

"From the very start, people were behaving in a way that fuelled the national problem," he said.

But he did point to a Champions League match between Italy's Atalanta and Spain's Valencia's football clubs in Milan's San Siro stadium on 19 February as a particularly egregious mistake.

It was attended by 40,000 fans who celebrated the local team's win deep into the night.

"We can now say, with hindsight, that it was potentially a detonator," he said of the match.