Pope Francis taken ill in Rome as coronavirus sweeps Italy

27 February 2020, 23:57 | Updated: 28 February 2020, 00:01

Pope Francis has cancelled a planned mass with clergy in Rome due to an illness.

The Vatican said the 83-year-old pontiff had a "slight indisposition" and would proceed with the rest of his planned work on Thursday but Francis "preferred to stay near Santa Marta", the Vatican hotel where he lives.

There was no word from the Vatican about the nature of his illness, but the pope was seen coughing and blowing his nose during the Ash Wednesday Mass.

READ MORE: UK coronavirus cases rise to 16 after first patient diagnosed in Northern Ireland

It comes amid an outbreak of the strain of coronavirus - also known as Covid-19 - in Italy that has infected more than 400 people, almost all of them in the north. Rome had three cases, but all three were cured.

The pope has been taken ill
The pope has been taken ill. Picture: PA

Francis had been scheduled to go to the St John Lateran basilica to meet with Rome clergy and celebrate a penitential Mass at the start of Lent. Francis is bishop of Rome, but delegates the day-to-day running of the archdiocese to a vicar.

The Argentine pope has generally enjoyed good health. He lost part of one lung as a young man because of a respiratory illness, and suffers from sciatica, which makes walking difficult.

Francis has had a busy schedule lately, including his public general audience on Wednesday and the Ash Wednesday service later in the day in a Roman basilica.

Italy has sought international support for its coronavirus containment efforts. The country has seen 400 cases and the UN's health agency urged an increased response.

Italian premier Giuseppe Conte's government appealed to European neighbours for cooperation, not isolation and discrimination.

The Vatican said the 83-year-old pontiff had a "slight indisposition"
The Vatican said the 83-year-old pontiff had a "slight indisposition". Picture: PA

Italy has been struggling to contain the rapidly spreading outbreak that made it the country with more coronavirus cases outside Asia than anywhere else.

"Viruses don't know borders and they don't stop at them," Italian health minister Roberto Speranza said at the start of a crisis meeting with World Health Organisation and European Union representatives in Rome.

Twelve people infected with the virus have died in Italy since Friday, all of them elderly, having other health conditions or both, civil protection chief Angelo Borelli said.

The Italian government has defended its handling of the crisis, even as it acknowledges alarm over its increasing cases and inability to locate the origin of the two clusters in the northern Lombardy and Veneto regions.

Germany and France also reported two cases apiece in people with no known ties to Italy, travel to China or contact with an infected person, raising concern about additional clusters of no known origin possibly forming in Europe.

"We are at the beginning of a coronavirus epidemic in Germany," German health minister Jens Spahn said, adding that he had asked state health officials to review their emergency plans for pandemics.

Greece and neighbouring North Macedonia registered their first confirmed virus cases on Wednesday, also involving people who recently travelled to the north of Italy.

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