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HEALTH

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about Italy’s UK coronavirus travel ban

Italy on Sunday banned arrivals from the UK amid concerns about a potent new strain of the Covid-19 virus. Here are the details of the new rules.

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about Italy’s UK coronavirus travel ban
Alitalia planes grounded at Italy's Fiumicino airport. Photo: AFP

On Saturday the UK tightened its coronavirus restrictions over Christmas, blaming a new strain of the virus which it said could be up to 70 percent more contagious. 

READ ALSO: Travel chaos in Europe: Which countries have imposed travel bans on UK?

After British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the new strain was “out of control” in parts of the UK, European countries struggling to deal with their own virus situations reacted with alarm and began suspending travel. 

Italy was quick to announce a strict flight ban on Sunday shortly after The Netherlands and Belgium. Dozens of countries including Germany, France and Sweden announced travel restrictions later on Sunday.

While many countries opted for initial travel bans of 24 or 48 hours, while they assess the situation, Italy has banned air travel right through to January 6th according to an update on the Italian government's travel advice website.

Here's a closer look at Italy's rules on travel from the UK:

Who is affected?

Anyone who was planning to fly between the UK and Italy – but also anyone planning to enter Italy from elsewhere after visiting the UK within the past two weeks, and anyone who has already arrived in Italy after being in the UK within the past two weeks.

Italy's health and transport ministers on Sunday signed an ordinance (official text here, in Italian).stating that entering and transiting within Italy “is prohibited to people who, in the fourteen days prior to this ordinance, have stayed or transited in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

This means that not only have UK flights been stopped, but anyone who has been in the UK at all within the past two weeks is banned from entering Italy – even if they arrive in Italy from another country.

Anyone who has already arrived in Italy from the UK is required to get tested (more details on this below).

Italian citizens and permanent residents of Italy are also covered by the rules.

There are no exemptions for essential travel included in the new ordinance signed on Sunday.

What about travelling from Italy to the UK?

There was confusion on Sunday over whether flights were banned in both directions or just flights to Italy from the UK, after the Foreign Minister said Italy would suspend flights “with” the UK.

The official text of the ordinance published on Monday states that “air traffic from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is prohibited”.

However the ban appears to be affecting travel both ways, as flights between the two countries are cancelled.

Photo: AFP

Some airlines on Sunday were reportedly blocking passengers from boarding flights from Italian airports to the UK, while Rome's airport authority confirmed that flights both ways were cancelled.

“Flights to and from the UK and Northern Ireland have been cancelled, due to the Health Ministry ordinance valid until January 6th”, Aeroporti di Roma said in a statement posted on social media.
 

The Italian consulate in London is currently advising travellers to contact their airline.

While Italy's restrictions apply to air travel only, travelling from the UK to Italy by road or rail is currently impossible as France has introduced a complete ban on all travel from the UK.

Who needs to be tested?

Anyone already in Italy who recently travelled from Britain “is required to undergo an antigen or molecular swab test by contacting the health authorities,” Health Minister Roberto Speranza said on Sunday

The ordinance later clarified that this applies to anyone who has been in the UK within the past 14 days, even if they are asymptomatic.

 
It was not made immediately clear in official statements, but this appears to mean that people who have already had a negative test result before arriving in Italy would now need to be tested again.
 
All travellers from EU and Schengen countries, including the UK, have already been required to get tested before travelling to Italy since December 10th.
 
The 110 passengers who landed at Rome Fiumicino on Sunday's flight from London Heathrow – the last one before the travel ban – were being tested on arrival in Italy, despite already facing the requirement to test before travel.
 
For advice on testing, you can contact the freephone coronavirus advice hotline in the region of Italy you are currently in.
 
How does this affect Italy's quarantine rules?
 
The flight ban complicates things further for travellers already navigating existing Italian travel restrictions covering the Christmas period.
 
Italy had already announced earlier this month that all arrivals would have to quarantine for two weeks if they had been abroad between December 21st and January 6th.
 
So if you are able to return to Italy on January 7th, this means you will then need to quarantine upon arrival.
 

 
Is there anything else to worry about?

Yes, January 1st. This is the date that the Brexit transition period ends and the UK is therefore outside the European Bloc.

Since March, the EU has closed its external borders and only essential travel is allowed for people coming in from outside Europe.

Travel within the EU has not been affected by this, and at present that includes the UK.

However from January 1st the same rules will apply to the UK as they do to America, Canada and other non-EU countries, which means no non-essential travel into Italy.

It's still possible that the EU could make an exception for the UK – but the rapidly diminishing time frame plus the virus mutation makes that seem unlikely.

Are you affected by the travel ban? We’d like to hear your story. Get in touch at [email protected]

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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

What will a right-wing election victory mean for abortion rights in Italy?

The right-wing parties poised to win Italy’s upcoming general elections have a history of denouncing abortion. Could a new conservative government threaten reproductive rights in Italy?

What will a right-wing election victory mean for abortion rights in Italy?

When Italians go to the polls on September 25th, a coalition of three right-wing parties – Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, Matteo Salvini’s League and Forza Italia, led by former premier Silvio Berlusconi – are widely expected to win the vote and secure the opportunity to form Italy’s next government.

READ ALSO: Your ultimate guide to Italy’s crucial elections on Sunday

With all three parties to the right of centre – by quite some way, in the case of Brothers of Italy and the League – activists are concerned about what Italy’s most socially conservative government in years could mean for women seeking to access abortions, as they have had the legal right to do here for over four decades.

Here’s what Italian law says about abortion, what the right-wing alliance has promised it will – or won’t – change, and what all this could mean for people in need of abortion care in Italy.

What is Italy’s law on abortion now?

Abortion – formally referred to in Italian as interruzione volontaria di gravidanza or IVG, ‘voluntary termination of pregnancy’ – has been legal in Italy since 1978.

Passed after years of protests and several other failed bills, Legge 194 (‘Law 194’) decriminalized the procedure and entitled women to request it for any reasons of physical or mental health within the first 90 days after conception.

Women can continue to seek an abortion after 90 days if a significant foetal abnormality is present, or if continuing the pregnancy would endanger the woman’s life.

READ ALSO: The long road to legal abortion in Italy

The procedure is offered free of charge to those who qualify for public healthcare in Italy.

To access it, women first must consult a doctor and discuss options “to help her to overcome the factors which would lead her to have her pregnancy terminated”.

If the patient continues to affirm her original choice, she will be issued a certificate either stating that the termination is urgent and can be carried out immediately, or, if it is not deemed urgent, that she can seek the procedure after a obligatory seven-day wait.

Campaigners in front of a banner reading ‘Don’t touch law 194’. Photo by FABRIZIO VILLA / AFP

In reality, the wait for an appointment is likely to be far longer. Law 194 also affirms the right of health workers to refuse to carry out abortions on the grounds of “conscientious objection”. 

This has translated into serious gaps in coverage across Italy, with some facilities staffed mostly or even entirely by personnel who decline to deliver abortion services.  

READ ALSO: Why abortions in Italy are still hard to access – despite being legal

In fact, a majority of gynaecologists in Italy – 64.6 percent, according to 2020 figures from the Ministry of Health – are registered objectors, as well as 44.6 percent of anaesthesiologists and 36.2 percent of non-medical staff at health facilities. 

In several parts of the country, including the regions of Sicily, Basilicata, Abruzzo, Molise and the province of Bolzano, the percentage of gynaecologists refusing to perform abortions is over 80 percent.

These doctors are probably out of step with public opinion in Italy. A 1981 referendum gave voters the opportunity to reject the new abortion law; 68 percent of them voted to keep it. 

More recently, an Ipsos poll conducted earlier this year found that 73 percent of people surveyed in Italy said abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

What election promises has Italy’s right-wing alliance made about abortion?

No doubt sensing the lack of appetite for a full-scale repeal of Italy’s abortion law, the right-wing coalition has made clear that that’s not on its agenda. 

Abortion doesn’t get a single mention in the joint platform put forward by the Brothers of Italy, League and Forza Italia. 

Law 194 does appear in the Brothers of Italy programme, which promises “full application” of the legislation, “starting with prevention” of abortion.

To this end, it pledges the allocation of funds to support single and economically disadvantaged women to carry pregnancies to term, a proposal echoed by the League and presented by both parties as part of a broader drive to reverse Italy’s plummeting birth rate.

The League’s platform also calls for implementation of Law 194’s provisions on the “effective promotion of life”, including by involving non-profit groups – presumably Catholic and other pro-life ones – in pre-abortion counselling.

Forza Italia, historically the most centrist of the three, hasn’t broached the subject at all. 

READ ALSO: Salvini vs Meloni: Can Italy’s far-right rivals put differences aside?

Both Meloni and Salvini have faced questions on the campaign trail about their position on abortion, given previous comments calling abortion “a defeat for society” (Meloni), loudly professed Catholicism (Salvini) and support for European allies who have restricted access to abortion, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (both). 

“Law 194 isn’t to be touched,” Salvini told reporters this week. “The last thing Italy needs is a country divided and arguing over the laws in place – which can be improved and updated, but certainly not scrapped.”

Meloni, meanwhile, told a recent interviewer that “I never said I want to modify Law 194, but that I want to apply it”. That includes supporting women who feel obliged to abort for economic or practical reasons, she said – as well as supporting health workers who refuse to provide the procedure. 

Why are activists worried a new right-wing government could threaten abortion rights in Italy?

The problem is that Law 194 perhaps does need an overhaul if it is to guarantee access to safe, legal abortions across Italy. 

Those who support women’s right to choose have long complained that the 44-year-old law – whose primary objective, the Italian Health Ministry’s website states, “is the social protection of motherhood and the prevention of abortion” – is not fit for purpose.

A demonstrator holds a sign reading ‘free to choose’ at a rally in defence of Italy’s abortion law. Photo by FABRIZIO VILLA / AFP

Law 194 “does not establish in a strong sense women’s right to choice and self-determination: it establishes when access to it is permitted and granted,” Chiara Lalli, a writer and academic with a focus on abortion, told Il Post

The multiple doctor visits, mandatory counselling session and seven-day “reflection” period are attempts to interfere with women’s decisions, activists say. 

READ ALSO: ‘Ugly act’: Outrage in Italy over discovery of foetus graves marked with women’s names

Separately, watchdogs including the United Nations Human Rights Committee, Human Rights Watch and the Council of Europe’s committee of social rights have flagged the high rates of conscientious objectors as a persistent barrier to abortion access in Italy.

While authorities are supposed to ensure that women can access terminations and that objecting doctors can’t refuse care beyond the procedure itself, with no mechanisms to enforce these requirements specified in the existing law, in practice women report facing long delays or being denied assistance altogether. 

In the past, both Brothers and Italy and the League have resisted attempts to help the problem, such as by recruiting specifically non-objecting doctors.

While these problems are longstanding, there have been attempts in recent years to put more obstacles between women and abortions – mainly from regional or municipal politicians, who tend to be more explicit in their opposition than those on the national stage.

Many of these have come from members of the three main right-wing parties, which together have governed 14 of Italy’s 20 regions for the past two years.

And with each region largely in charge of managing its own public health service, regional governments have the power to make decisions that significantly affect how and where women can access abortions.

In Le Marche, headed by the Brothers of Italy, the regional government refused to implement 2020 national guidelines from the Ministry of Health that would have extended the window for medical abortions from seven to nine weeks and made it possible for women to obtain abortion pills in outpatient clinics and family planning centres instead of going into hospital. 

Abruzzo, whose council is also led by Brothers of Italy, as well as Piedmont and Umbria, two regions governed by the League, resisted the change too.

Priests join an anti-abortion demonstration on May 21st 2022 in central Rome. The placard reads “Human Rights are born in the womb”. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

Piedmont has further allowed anti-abortion groups to set up stands in public hospitals, and councillors have proposed funnelling public funds to groups that would pay women not to abort

The League-run council in Verona declared it a “pro-life city” and called for funding for anti-abortion projects to be written into the town budget, as well as authorizing anti-abortion groups to display promotional material in council buildings. 

In the wider region of Veneto, such groups are allowed to offer family counselling services alongside those providing neutral information – a move the League’s manifesto suggests extending when it talks about involving non-profits in “the promotion of life”. 

To those who support abortion, it all starts to look like a pattern. “As soon as a right-wing council takes charge, it seems like these issues are at the top of the agenda,” Beatrice Brignone, head of the small left-wing party Possibile, told L’Espresso back in 2020.

READ ALSO: Why an Italian woman was forced to go to 23 hospitals to have an abortion

With threats to abortion access in Italy emerging locally and unchecked at national level, some activists say they would in fact welcome putting Law 194 up for debate under the next government.

“As much to better implement it as to make the necessary modifications … it is time to begin an informed discussion on abortion and free ourselves from the prejudice that the law is untouchable,” comments the Luca Coscioni Association, which advocates for freedom of scientific research and backs abortion rights.

Meloni and her allies have already made clear that such a discussion will not be among their priorities if they win this weekend. 

What do other parties say about abortion?

Abortion isn’t an issue for either the centrists Italia Viva or Azione, nor for the populist Five Star Movement.

The centre-left Democratic Party promises the full application of Law 194 throughout the country, without going into further details.

The only concrete proposals come from much smaller parties on the left: Possibile proposes establishing a quota of at least 60 percent of non-objecting staff in each health facility, as well as tracking the service provided by each region and punishing those who fail to meet minimum standards. 

The Greens and Left Alliance wants to change recruitment rules to hire more non-objecting medical staff, while +Europa suggests partnering with private clinics to expand access and making medical abortion more widely available as an outpatient procedure.

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