Most of Italy is back in lockdown from Monday, but the new government hopes its updated coronavirus vaccine plan will make this one the last.
Prime Minister Mario Draghi recently unveiled a new vaccination strategy that aims to massively speed up inoculations to cover 80 percent of the population by September.
“It is a big mess, there is no point denying it,” Giorgio Mule, a junior defence minister, told Il Messaggero newspaper.
Draghi’s plan counts on Italy receiving 16 million vaccine shots by the end of the month, rising to 52 million during the second quarter of the year, and 85 million in the third quarter.
But a large number of those doses are supposed to come from AstraZeneca: 2.9 million in the next couple of weeks, 10 million in the second quarter and 25 million in the third quarter.
While Italy may reinstate the AstraZeneca vaccine, if it is cleared by the European Medicines Agency on Thursday, there are fears the suspension will increase public uncertainty and fuel the already relatively strong anti-vax movement in Italy.
“I am perplexed and embittered,” health councillor for the Lazio region Alessio D’Amato, told Il Corriere della Sera on Tuesday. “I’m concerned about the climate of mistrust and doubt, the suspicion and fear that will be generated in people regarding a vaccine on which Italy has focused on a lot.”
The move already looks likely to have delayed the programme, as Italian media reported on Tuesday that “tens of thousands” of people will now have to reschedule cancelled vaccine appointments.
Many people had already reportedly cancelled their appointments in recent days amid uncertainty about the AstraZeneca jab’s safety.
And public perceptions that the AstraZeneca vaccine may have more significant side-effects, such as mild flu symptoms, meant that uptake of the jab had already been slow in the country.
Draghi, who took over at the head of a new government last month, has set a target of nearly tripling the number of daily vaccine injections to 500,000 per day.
This should lead to 60 percent of the population getting fully vaccinated by late July, rising to 70 percent in late August and 80 percent in mid-September, according to the strategy.
Only around two million people in Italy have so far received the necessary two vaccine shots, out of a population of about 60 million.
Like other EU countries, Italy’s vaccination programme has been dogged by delays in supplies of jabs – but experts say these are not entirely to blame for the slow progress.
Carlo Palermo, head of doctors’ trade union Anaoo Assomed, said Italy had a good start in January when it focused on health workers and care homes, but then struggled to scale up.
This was partly due to personnel shortages, with a drive to recruit some 12,000 extra nurses as vaccinators eliciting only around 4,000 applications, he told AFP.
There has also been poor coordination between regions on prioritisation.
Tuscany, for example, focused on vaccinating lawyers, so many healthy people in their 30s and 40s have had the shots.
Across Italy, only a third of the 6.85 million vaccine doses administered so far have gone to people aged 70 or above, despite their increased vulnerability to coronavirus.
“The extent to which vaccines have so far been administered to relatively young categories is quite surprising … and cannot be explained on health grounds,” Federico Santi, senior analyst at Eurasia Group, told AFP.
The government is now recruiting the help of pharmacists, trainee doctors, dentists and family doctors to administer the jabs, and will bring in the army and civil protection agency to help struggling regions like Calabria in the south.
It is expanding vaccine facilities, opening large-scale hubs and repurposing car parks, shopping centres, gyms, factories and even church property – although one centre in Rome’s Termini station shut down on Tuesday due a shortage of AstraZeneca jabs.
There are concerns that more supply shortages are possible, Santi said, noting that Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca are among the pharma companies struggling with production delays.
“Supplies remain the big question mark,” he said.