ROME — Italy will make vaccines mandatory for over 50-year-olds as it seeks to tackle a dramatic surge in daily coronavirus infections fuelled by the Omicron variant.
The Cabinet agreed Wednesday that those in the workforce who are over 50 will have to show a health pass proving they have either been vaccinated or recently recovered from COVID-19, or face suspension from work from mid-February. Previously, the unvaccinated could go to work only if they tested negative every two days. Those over-50s who don’t work will have to either be vaccinated or face sanctions.
The new regulations, some of the strictest in Europe, were agreed upon after a record number of almost 190,000 cases were reported on Wednesday, and deaths reached the highest levels since spring 2020.
Italy’s vaccination campaign has been relatively successful with 78 percent of the population vaccinated, higher than the EU average.
But the Rome government’s priority is to protect the economic recovery by avoiding lockdowns, and to protect the healthcare system from being overwhelmed. Seven percent of over-50s are unvaccinated in Italy but in some areas that number is as high as 11 percent. As Omicron has surged, hospital admissions have increased by 25 percent in a week. Some 25-30 percent of ordinary hospital beds are taken up with COVID-19 patients in the worst-hit regions of Sicily and Calabria.
During a meeting that lasted more than three hours, Prime Minister Mario Draghi told his ministers: “Today’s measures are intended to preserve the health system, and at the same time keep schools and businesses open. We want to slow down the curve of infections and push the Italians who have not yet got vaccinated to do so.” The government is targeting the over-50s as they are some of the “most at risk of hospitalization, so as to reduce pressure on hospitals and save lives,” he said.
The left-leaning Democrats were in favor of mandatory vaccination for all adults, but a compromise was reached with coalition partners who had reservations. Measures requiring vaccination to access essential services such as banks, local councils and post offices were watered down after strong opposition from the far-right League, and only proof of a negative test will be needed.
Italy follows Greece, which approved mandatory vaccines for over 60-year-olds in November while Austria has said it will introduce fines for the unvaccinated from February.