By Angelo Amante and Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) - Italy approved new restrictions on Thursday to avoid a surge in novel coronavirus infections over Christmas and the New Year, banning midnight mass and halting movement between towns, as the country posted its highest daily death toll of the pandemic.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said that from Dec. 21 to Jan. 6 movement between Italy's 20 regions will only be allowed for work, medical reasons or emergencies. On Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day, Italians cannot even leave their towns.
In a televised evening news conference, Conte said current curbs which are staggered around the country according to local infection rates were producing good results, but the Christmas holidays threatened to cause a new spike in cases.
"It's clear this will be a Christmas that is different from the others but it will be no less authentic," he said, urging people not to invite any guests to their homes during the festivities.
In Italy, the first Western nation to be battered by the virus, more than 58,000 people have died since its outbreak in February, the second highest toll in Europe after Britain. It has also registered 1.665 million cases.
An increase in new infections and hospital admissions has slowed in recent weeks, but Italy is still reporting more daily COVID-19 fatalities than any other European nation.
On Thursday, 993 people died - Italy's highest daily toll yet. The previous record was 919 on March 27 at the peak of the first wave of the pandemic.
Italy's regions hit out at the government over the latest restrictions, saying they were not consulted over measures that were too hard on families and did not compensate hard-hit businesses.
In a joint statement the regional governments said "the lack of discussion has made it impossible to balance the curbs with the needs of families."
Since the start of the pandemic there has been constant friction between Rome and regional authorities, most of which are in the hands of the centre-right opposition.
Millions of Italians live in small towns and villages and the new rules will ban movement between them at Christmas and on New Year's Day, even if they are within walking distance.
"These families must remain divided even at Christmas. This is yet more proof that the government does not know Italy," said Matteo Salvini, leader of the rightist League opposition party.
Several of the measures announced by Conte had leaked previously, including the closure of ski resorts over Christmas holidays and the imposition of 14 days quarantine for anyone entering Italy between Dec. 21 and Jan. 6.
(Reporting by Angelo Amante and Gavin Jones; editing by Grant McCool)