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Italy heads into uneasy waters, forcing workers to show health pass

Italy is worried about worker shortages as the country begins enforcing one of the world's toughest vaccine mandates. Under the new law, every worker must show a health pass or face being suspended.

(CN) — Italy began enforcing one of the world's strictest vaccination mandates on Friday by requiring all workers to present a coronavirus health pass or face being suspended without pay, a decree that leaves more than 2 million workers at risk of falling foul of the law.

In a sign of potential economic disruptions caused by the mandate, dock workers on Friday went on strike at Italy's largest ports and vowed to keep up their resistance until the law is rescinded. There are concerns large numbers of truck drivers, police officers and other critical workers such as field hands may not be in compliance with the law and not be allowed to work.

Protesters, too, took to the streets in many Italian cities and blasted the mandate as an undemocratic and heavy handed measure. As the government ratchets up anti-coronavirus measures, protests too have become fierce. Last weekend, far-right militants led an anti-vaccine protest that turned violent with the ransacking of the national headquarters of CGIL, a left-wing trade union in Rome.

The new mandate requires all public and private workers, even the self-employed, to have a so-called green pass to be able to work. The green pass is valid when a person is vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, recently tested negative or recovered from an infection. Workers and businesses violating the law face stiff fines.

The pass was already needed to ride on airplanes and long-distance trains and to gain entry to restaurants, cinemas, gyms, museums and other indoor public places.

The vast majority of Italy's 23 million workers are vaccinated, but more than 2 million workers are not and they will need to take frequent coronavirus tests to be able to continue working or get inoculated. A common rapid test costs 15 euros (about $17) and is valid for 48 hours.

The new law will be a major test for the cross-party caretaker government led by Prime Minister 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 the workforce vaccine mandate.

An employee has her certification checked in Rome as Italy's new green pass vaccination requirement for employees to enter their offices became mandatory on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. (Andrew Medichini/AP)

The policy was meant to force those hesitant about the vaccines to get the jab. But the new mandate has had mixed success.

When the green pass mandate for workers was announced in the middle of September, about 65% of Italians were fully vaccinated and 73% had received a single dose, according to Our World in Data. Since then, the numbers have edged up to nearly 70% fully vaccinated and about 76% partially vaccinated. Still, Italy has one of the world's highest vaccination rates. The government also reached a goal of vaccinating more than 80% of those over the age of 12. It has not set a new target.

The new law is exacerbating political tensions within a caretaker government that includes most of Italy's major parties.

Although polls show the majority of Italians favor the green pass system, Draghi's tough work mandate has left many Italians disgruntled and supporting it is particularly difficult for the two biggest parties in parliament, the right-wing League party led by Matteo Salvini and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.

Both parties are seen as populist forces and by going along with Draghi's tough vaccine stance, they risk losing support among voters who see the green pass as unnecessary and undemocratic.

Salvini is the one to watch because his position as Italy's foremost right-wing leader is in danger of being eclipsed by Giorgia Meloni, the leader of a party even farther to the right, the Brothers of Italy, with roots in neofascist parties. Meloni has risen in the polls as she's refused to join Draghi's compromise government and railed against the green pass.

Salvini and Meloni are calling for the government to pay for tests for those who don't want to get vaccinated, but doing that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars a month.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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