At a small coffee shop in central Rome on Monday morning, the door was wide open, and the few patrons who chose to drink cappuccino indoors to escape the cold had to show the masked baristas proof of vaccination for the first time.
The new Italian restrictions came into place after the government made vaccination passes – not just a negative COVID-19 test – mandatory for using public transport and accessing public places such as gyms, hotels, restaurants and bars. Last week, the government also demanded that everyone over 50 be fully vaccinated, making Italy one of only three EU countries mandating vaccines for an entire age group.
Is Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccination Coming to Canada? A look at each province and territory’s restrictions and vaccine mandate policies
Italy’s mandatory vaccine mandate came as infection rates set records virtually every day since the Omicron variant began sweeping through the country in December. Italy hopes that mandatory vaccines will protect the economy and take some pressure off hospitals. Health Minister Roberto Speranza said two-thirds of patients in intensive care units are unvaccinated.
But it is far from certain that other EU countries will push vaccine mandates through, although many of them, such as France, use strict restrictions to make life for the unvaccinated harder every month. Several European cities have been hit by major anti-vaccine protests, right-wing parties are largely opposed to mandatory vaccines, and there are many enforcement issues.
Yet the idea of mandatory vaccines is no longer taboo, and many government leaders support them, although some of them have not yet confronted the “rejections” directly.
“I sense that we are seeing a change in the view of vaccine mandates as more people and politicians appreciate the consequences for society of a significant number remaining unvaccinated,” Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said in an interview. “Of course, there is much more that needs to be done to encourage vaccinations, in the absence of mandates, but there is growing evidence that they work and those who are determined to persevere are a small minority.”
According to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker, almost 71 percent of the eligible EU population is fully vaccinated, and every third person has received a booster shot. The goal is to vaccinate everyone who is eligible, while Omicron infections remain stubbornly high, straining all public services as many doctors, ambulance drivers, police and officials become symptomatic.
Italy has spearheaded the campaign. Before announcing the mandatory vaccines for people over 50, it had demanded that all teachers and health workers be vaccinated and that all other employees, both public and private, be stabbed or tested negative to enter the workplace. “These rules are aimed at keeping hospitals well-functioning and schools and business activities open,” Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said last week.
The other two EU countries that will soon require jabs for entire age groups, not just certain professions such as doctors, are Greece and Austria.
Greece announced in late November that it would make vaccines mandatory from 16 January for anyone aged 60 and over. The country had already banned unvaccinated from indoor public spaces such as restaurants, cinemas and museums.
Austria plans to go a big step further than Italy and Greece. On February 1, vaccinations will be mandatory for anyone over the age of 14, although some politicians believe the date will slip.
France does not require vaccines for certain age groups, only certain professions. But last week, French MPs passed a bill that would require proof of vaccination for adults to gain access to public places such as restaurants and theaters. Voting on the bill was halted for a few days after French President Emmanuel Macron unleashed a political firestorm when he said he would “piss” the unvaccinated by making their lives unbearably complicated.
Other EU countries are talking about vaccine mandates, but some of them are delaying the move due to political and popular opposition. Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, predicted in November that the country would have a general vaccine mandate in February or March. His goal now seems impossible, with some members of his ruling coalition opposed to any mandate. A few recent demonstrations in Germany against mandatory vaccines have become violent.
There is also a feeling among some German politicians and politicians elsewhere in the EU that the vaccine mandates would come too late to stop or even slow down the Omicron attack. Some large countries, such as Italy and France, have reported more than 150,000 cases a day and more than 250,000 in a few days (the French daily record was 332,000, achieved one day last week). Italy reopened its schools on Monday after the Christmas and New Year holidays, triggering predictions of an even bigger wave of Omicron infections in the coming weeks.
German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach seems to be changing his mind about mandatory vaccines. When Omicron was on its way to Germany, he said a vaccine mandate would not stop the Omicron rise. But on Sunday, as the number of cases and fatalities continued to rise, he told the German newspaper Die Welt that it was not the solution to gain immunity through infection.
“We need a vaccine mandate,” he said. “Otherwise, Omicron is a dirty vaccination through the back door.” He added that “many people would become seriously ill with frequent permanent injuries” if Omicron was not controlled.