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Italy gets tough, forcing workers to get vaccinated or get punished

In a first, Italy is taking a tough stance and forcing public and private workers to get vaccinated or face fines and get suspended from their jobs without pay.

(CN) — When the novel coronavirus erupted with deadly force in northern Italy early last year at the start of the pandemic, Italy became the first country in the world to impose a national lockdown. Others soon followed suit.

Now Italy plans to become the testing ground for a new experiment: It is the first European country to force public and private workers to get vaccinated or face punishment.

This time, it's uncertain others will take the same sweeping step as Italy, but across Europe governments are using tough tactics to get people vaccinated and it's paying off. Many European nations have among the highest inoculation rates in the world. In turn, Europe's darkest days seem to be behind it as the number of new infections and deaths remain relatively low compared with previous stages of the pandemic.

Italy's experiment, then, will be closely watched.

Starting on Oct. 15, all 23 million of Italy's public and private workers — even those who are self-employed — will be required to show a so-called “green pass” at their workplaces. The passes are valid when a person has been vaccinated, recently tested negative for the virus or was previously infected.

Failure to show a green pass may result in a fine of up to 1,500 euros (about $1,767). Employers too will face fines up to 1,000 euros (about $1,178). Workers without green passes may be suspended from their jobs without pay, though the law says they cannot be fired for not complying. The mandate will run until at least the end of the year but may be extended.

Other European countries have made similar health passes obligatory for health and public workers and for people wanting to gain entry to restaurants, cinemas and airplanes. Greece has begun requiring unvaccinated workers to get tested regularly.

But this new law sets Italy apart and will likely drive vaccination rates even higher in a country that's recorded among the highest death tolls in the world. Recently, Italy's death toll surpassed 130,000, the second most in Western Europe after the United Kingdom. Russia has registered about 193,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

The decree was approved Thursday by the Italian government, which is made up of a cross section of parties under the technocratic leadership of Mario Draghi, a former European Central Bank president. Draghi was brought in as prime minister in February after the government collapsed. Without a political party affiliation and no clear political ambitions, Draghi was seen as the best person to steer Italy through the coronavirus crisis and make tough decisions, such as this workforce vaccine mandate.

Last week, Draghi spoke about the possibility of making vaccinations mandatory for the general population, but instead he's opted for this more targeted tactic. On Thursday, after the decree was passed by his cabinet, Draghi did not appear at a news conference where ministers touted the rule as the best way to revive Italy's economy and overcome the virus. Surveys show a vast majority of Italians in favor of vaccine mandates.

The government said it hopes to have 80% of Italians on the way to being fully vaccinated by the middle of October. About 73% of Italians have received at least one dose and about 65% of Italians are fully vaccinated, slightly more than in Britain and about 10% more than in the U.S., according to Our World in Data figures. Italy has one of Europe's highest vaccination rates, though it trails Portugal, Spain, Denmark and Ireland.

After initially falling behind the U.S. and U.K. in vaccine rollouts, vaccination has become a success story for Europe, though there are staunch pockets of people who are against the inoculations, fearing they pose health risks, are unnecessary and are being used as an draconian undemocratic imposition by governments. Anti-vaccination protests, ranging in size, are common in many cities across the continent.

Italy — like much of the rest of Europe — has caught up and surpassed the U.S. and Britain in its vaccination rate, and this new mandate is seen as a way to force people who are skeptical, fearful or simply procrastinating to get jabbed.

The European Union came under immense criticism for its slower vaccination rollout when compared with those of the U.S. and Britain. In the first few months of the year, there was pressure on European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to step down as pundits and politicians blamed her administration for a sluggish pace they said was costing lives and livelihoods.

Critics said the EU made grave mistakes by choosing to purchase vaccines for the entire 27-member bloc instead of allowing individual countries make their own deals; of being too cautious and cheap in negotiations with vaccine makers; not buying enough of the new mRNA vaccines; and putting the vaccines through too much medical scrutiny. The EU's medical agency, for example, caused a lot of Europeans to refuse the AstraZeneca vaccine after finding a link between a small risk of developing blood clots after inoculation.

Now, with summer winding down and the more dangerous colder months arriving, Europe is basking in its vaccine success. More than 70% of EU adults are fully vaccinated and many European countries are recording a steady uptick in inoculations.

“Today, and against all critics, Europe is among the world leaders,” Von der Leyen boasted during her state of the union speech on Wednesday before the European Parliament. “A pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint.”

She added: “We followed the science. We delivered to Europe. We delivered to the world. We did it the right way because we did it the European way. And it worked.”

Still, Europe's vaccine mandates are causing turmoil too.

In France, the government on Wednesday announced that 3,000 health workers were suspended because they refused to be vaccinated. About 5,000 health workers in Greece are suspended for their refusal to get jabbed. The loss of health staff is putting more strain on stressed health care systems struggling with backlogs of surgeries and patients.

In Italy, political opposition to the green pass mandate for workers is led by Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the hard-right Brothers of Italy, a party with roots in the country's neofascist parties.

“This was a cowardly decision that makes vaccination obligatory without naming it such,” Meloni said.

The problem for Italy's political establishment is that Meloni's hardcore party has also rocketed to the front of opinion polls in recent months, picking up about 21% of support, 1 point ahead of another far-right party, Matteo Salvini's League. Hers is the only major party that refused to participate in Draghi's caretaker government.

It's an extraordinary — many say dangerous — development: The Brothers of Italy only got about 4% of the vote in the last national ballot in 2018, and with early elections possible as early as next spring she's become an unlikely frontrunner to become prime minister.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union. Follow him on Twitter

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