Pope Francis blows his nose as he leads Ash Wednesday mass which opens Lent, the forty-day period of abstinence and deprivation for Christians before Holy Week and Easter. The Vatican has announced that Easter celebrations will be held without the presence of a congregation, due to the pandemic. Photo: AFP/Alberto Pizzoli

Pope Francis has fallen ill in Rome, only one day after not wearing a mask as he greeted and blessed a congregation on Ash Wednesday. But Vatican officials refused to say if the Pope had been tested for Covid-19.

In Italy, hotel bookings have slumped and nearly a dozen cities in the north are in lockdown as the number of infections reached 650 and deaths hit 17 – by far the highest in Europe – according to the latest figures from the civil protection agency, AFP reported.

However, Vatican officials have refused to comment on whether the Pope had been tested for coronavirus, saying only that he missed a Mass for the start of Lent due to a slight illness.

“This morning the pontiff did not go to St John Lateran Basilica for the Penitential Mass with Roman clergy,” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said on February 27. “Due to a light indisposition, he preferred to stay near [his Vatican residence] Santa Marta. Other duties are proceeding regularly.”

Bruni declined to answer when asked if the pontiff had been or will be tested for coronavirus.

Concern grew after footage circulated on social media showing the Pope coughing and blowing his nose during the Ash Wednesday service. During the celebration, the pontiff did not wear a mask as he greeted people. He appeared to have a cold and his voice sounded hoarse at his general audience on Ash Wednesday.

As he kissed cheeks and heads and touched the hands and faces of people, he delivered a message of hope to those who had caught the virus.

“I would like to express my closeness to the coronavirus patients and to the health workers who are treating them, as well as to the civil authorities,” he was quoted in the Catholic media as saying.

Pope Francis also postponed his official appointments Friday and was working from home, the Vatican said, a day after canceling a scheduled appearance at mass because of “a mild ailment,” AFP reported.

The pontiff, who lost part of a lung as a young man and suffers from sciatica, very rarely skips appointments in his busy schedule.