Italy's health minister says Covid-19 vaccines to be free, distribution in Q1 2021

Italy has registered 1.62 million cases to date. PHOTO: REUTERS

ROME (REUTERS) - Italy will launch a massive, free coronavirus vaccination programme early next year, with health workers and the elderly to be given priority, Health Minister Roberto Speranza told parliament on Wednesday (Dec 2).

"We finally see land, we have a clear route to a safe harbour... It seems likely that from January we will have the first vaccines," he told the Senate.

Mr Speranza said the government had options to buy 202 million Covid-19 vaccine shots from various companies and was awaiting clearance for their usage from European drug authorities.

Italy was the first Western country hit by the virus, registering 56,361 Covid-19 deaths since the outbreak emerged in February, the second highest toll in Europe after Britain's. It has also registered 1.62 million cases to date.

Health operators, elderly people and those living in nursing homes will be vaccinated first, Mr Speranza said, adding that the main part of the campaign will be carried out between spring and summer 2021.

Early in November Italy decided to impose new restrictions to rein in a second wave of its coronavirus epidemic, putting under partial lockdown much of its industrial north and limiting business activity.

The number of daily cases declined in the past week, but the government is expected to limit people's movement during the Christmas and New Year holidays to prevent any new surge in infections.

"Our intention is to limit travel abroad and between regions during the winter holidays," Mr Speranza said.

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