Italy puts in force tough new law requiring workers to test or vaccinate for Covid-19

People gather during a protest against the Green Pass in Rome on Oct 15, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

ROME (NYTIMES) - Italy on Friday (Oct 15) set a new bar for major Western democracies seeking to move beyond the coronavirus pandemic by enacting a sweeping law that requires the nation's entire workforce - public and private - to have government-issued health passes, essentially forcing Italians to choose between getting a pass and earning a living.

With the step, Italy, the first democracy to quarantine towns and apply national lockdowns, is again first across a new threshold, making clear that it is willing to use the full leverage of the state to try to curb the pandemic and get the economy moving.

Italy's measures, which require proof of vaccination, a negative rapid swab test or recent recovery from Covid-19 to go to the workplace, now stand as some of the toughest among Western democracies, which have struggled to balance public health needs with civil liberty concerns.

For many Western governments, that has resulted in refraining from national mandates while seeking other ways to encourage, coax and even mildly coerce people to get vaccinated.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron has tried to make life uncomfortable for unvaccinated people, requiring a health pass to enter restaurants and for long-distance train travel, for instance, but has mandated vaccines only for some essential workers.

United States President Joe Biden has appealed to private companies to mandate coronavirus vaccinations for employees, asking them to take the initiative as an effort that he announced last month to require 80 million US workers to get the shot undergoes a lengthy rule-making process.

Under Italy's new rules, those who do not have a Green Pass, as the health certificate is called, must take unpaid leave. Employers are responsible for verifying the certificates, which are for the most part shown on a cellphone app, though hard copies are also acceptable. Workers risk fines of up to €1,500 (S$2,346) for not complying.

Not everyone has been accepting of the requirements. Last weekend, a demonstration of 10,000 Green Pass opponents - a mix of vaccine skeptics, conspiracy theorists, anti-establishment types and workers livid about having to pay for frequent swabs - was hijacked by right-wing extremists and turned violent, prompting Italy to once again reckon with its fascist legacy.

But Friday, the roll-out went more or less smoothly, with only scattered protests, as the majority of citizens accepted the new pass as a fact of Italian life and a tolerable sacrifice, like wearing masks indoors, to help the country get out of the pandemic and return to normalcy.

The Green Pass has so far faced no serious legal challenge. Government officials said that the measure was already working and that more than 500,000 previously reluctant people - much higher than expected - have gotten inoculated since the government announced its plan last month.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the country has turned around a faltering start to its vaccination begun under the previous government led by a prime minister affiliated with the 5-Star Movement, an anti-establishment party that came to power in 2018 in part by encouraging skepticism about vaccines.

Today Italy has inoculated more than 80 per cent of its population older than 12, after earlier putting in place tough requirements for health workers and teachers and significantly increasing vaccination rates in those categories.

But to reach the most reluctant unvaccinated workers - an estimated 3.8 million people - the government has now taken one of the Western world's hardest lines.

Holdouts still remain. At Rome's Circus Maximus, the ancient chariot-racing track often used for major rallies with tens of thousands of people, a couple of thousand protesters waved banners reading "Liberty" and "The Green Pass Is Just the Beginning" at one end of the field.

Mr Stefano Fuccelli, 58, equated paying for coronavirus tests in order to go to work with extortion by the state and said he resisted getting vaccinated because he said he "did not want to be a lab rat".

In Florence, reporters and law enforcement officers outnumbered protesters, some of whom banged bongo drums and came up with creative solutions to get around the Green Pass.

Government officials also had to follow the new rules to enter Italy's government buildings. One unvaccinated councillor in the Lazio region that includes Rome camped out in his office before the law went into effect at midnight, avoiding having to take a coronavirus test before entering the building Friday.

"Oct 15, 2021: History books will remember this day as the day of shame," Mr Davide Barillari, a former 5-Star member, said in a video that he posted from his office at midnight.

But the issue was already settled for the Italian government and Mr Draghi, who has led Italy out of its worst days of the pandemic and toward recovery, and has a reputation for getting things done.

As the European Central Bank president, he famously helped save the euro, declaring that he would do "whatever it takes" for the European Union's currency to survive.

Since becoming prime minister in February after a political crisis, he has enjoyed widespread support across the political spectrum.

The once formidable populists who used to spur vaccine skeptics now back his government. Business groups also supported the Green Pass as a way to boost the economy. But the country's unions largely opposed it, taking issue with the plan to force workers to pay for swabs.

In the north-eastern coastal city Trieste, one of Italy's largest shipping and transport hubs, hundreds of port workers, a high percentage of whom were unvaccinated, gathered to block trucks. Their main objective was to get the government to pay for their swabs.

"We won't give up until the government cancels it," said Mr Sandi Volk, a union leader.

The government did not budge. It argues that the cost would be exorbitant and that it would erode a vaccination effort and its goal of hitting a 90 per cent vaccination rate.

The government has said it considers vaccines the only way out of the pandemic. And it has said that if the current formula for the Green Pass failed to promote more vaccinations, it would consider making it even tougher.

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