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Analysis: How much longer will all of Italy remain a Covid-19 ‘white zone’?

As coronavirus cases begin to rise again in Italy it seems only a matter of time until health measures are reimposed. But this may not happen for a while longer than first thought, due to upcoming changes to the country's tiered system of restrictions.

Analysis: How much longer will all of Italy remain a Covid-19 'white zone'?
Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

There has been widespread concern about just how quickly health restrictions – potentially including restrictions on businesses and the banning of large events – could make a comeback in Italy after several regions recently recorded sharp increases in the infection rate.

Since the end of June, every region of Italy has been in the low-risk ‘white’ zone – the least restrictive of the country’s four tiers or zones: white, yellow, orange and red.

READ ALSO: What are the rules on travel to Italy right now?

But the steep trajectory of the recent rise in cases in several areas means that, under current rules, some regions risk having ‘yellow’ or potentially even ‘orange’ zone rules reimposed within weeks.

The regions of Sardinia, Sicily, Veneto. Campania and Lazio are thought to be at the highest risk of turning ‘yellow’ in the coming weeks, based on the most recent weekly health data report published by the Higher Health Institute (ISS) and Italian health ministry on Friday.

Currently, regions automatically move from the white to the slightly more restrictive yellow zone if they record more than 50 infections per 100 thousand inhabitants in a seven-day period for three weeks in a row.

Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Overall Italy’s average nationwide incidence rate is now 19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, ISS data shows, with significant variation between regions.

Sardinia and Sicily have the highest incidence rates in the country at 33.2 and 31.8 respectively. They are followed by Veneto (26.7), Lazio (24) and Campania (21.7).

Despite the rise in cases however ISS head Silvio Brusaferro said on Friday that, for now, “the impact on hospital admissions remains minimal”.

Regional leaders have asked the health ministry to act amid concerns about the economic impact if restrictions made a comeback by August – Italy’s busiest month both for international tourist arrivals as well as for domestic holiday bookings.

Hospitalisation and intensive care occupancy rates will now become more important factors in deciding whether to impose new restrictions, Health Minister Roberto Speranza has confirmed.

“The number of infected people is rising, especially among children, but in most cases there is no need for hospitalisation and for this reason we have chosen to leave businesses open, favouring those who decide to inoculate themselves in order to prevent the circulation of the virus,” Speranza told reporters on Sunday.

Speranza was referring to the government’s plan to expand the use of its ‘green pass’ health certificate, requiring people to show proof of full vaccination, testing or recovery in order to enter more venues and potentially even to visit restaurants and gyms.

READ ALSO: What is Italy’s digital ‘green pass’ used for and how do you get it?

Italy’s green pass has been in use since June 17th, but at present it is only needed in order to access care homes or large events like concerts, sports matches and wedding receptions.

The government is hoping that the altered parameters and the extended green pass system will be enough to keep restrictions low and businesses open until at least the Ferragosto holiday in mid-August, according to Italian media reports.

European countries including Italy which are now seeing a rise in cases driven by the Delta variant are looking to the UK, where hospitalisation rates are now rising, to understand how long it could take before they too see an increase in the number of Covid-19 patients being admitted and how big that increase could be.

The Italian health ministry previously adjusted the zone criteria in May to focus more on hospitalisations and intensive care bed occupancy, aiming that time to allow more regions to relax measures in time for summer.

Government ministers are expected to finalise a new decree setting out the details of its changes on Tuesday following debates on Monday, newspaper Corriere della Sera reports

An official announcement is expected by the middle of this week.

For further details on the current coronavirus situation in Italy, see the Health Ministry’s website (in English).

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Italy lifts mask mandate for private sector workers

Masks will no longer be required in the workplace but Italian companies will have the right to impose restrictions for employees deemed "at risk".

Italy lifts mask mandate for private sector workers

Representatives from the Italian Ministry of Labour, Ministry of Health and all major national unions collectively signed off on Thursday a new “shared protocol” (protocollo condiviso) for the implementation of anti-Covid measures in private workplaces. 

Although the full text of the bill will only be made available to the public sometime next week, portions of the document have already been released to the media, thus disclosing the government’s next steps in the fight against the virus.

The most relevant update concerns face masks, which will no longer be mandatory in private workplaces. 

However, the text specifies, FFP2 face masks remain “an important protective item aimed at safeguarding workers’ health”. As such, employers will have the right to autonomously impose the use of face coverings on categories of workers considered “at risk”.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Notably, face coverings may remain mandatory for those working in “indoor settings shared by multiple employees” or even in “outdoor settings where social distancing may not be practicable”. Individuals with pre-existing medical conditions (soggetti fragili) may also be subject to such rules, which, it is worth reminding, are left to the employer’s discretion. 

Alongside mask-related restrictions, employers will also have the right to have their staff undergo temperature checks prior to entering the workplace. In such cases, anyone with a body temperature higher than 37.5C will be denied access to the workplace and will be asked to temporarily self-isolate pending further indications from their own doctor.

In line with previous measures, companies will be required to continue supplying sanitising products free of charge and regulate access to common areas (canteens, smoking areas, etc.) so as to avoid gatherings.

Additionally, employers will be advised to keep incentivising smart working (lavoro agile), as it has proved to be “a valuable tool to curb infection, especially for at-risk individuals”.

Provided that the country’s infection curve registers no significant changes, the updated protocol will remain in place until October 31st, when it will yet again be reviewed by the relevant governmental and social parties. 

With the latest round of measures, Italy has now scrapped all Covid-related health measures, except the requirement to wear face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings, and self-isolation provisions for those testing positive. 

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

Italy’s infection curve has been rising significantly since the beginning of June. From June 1st to June 14th, Covid’s R (spreading rate) rate rose back over 1 for the first time since April 8th. Also, from June 17th to June 23rd, the virus’s incidence rate was 504 cases every 100,000 residents, up by 62 per cent on the previous week.

According to Claudio Mastroianni, Professor of Infectious Diseases at Sapienza University of Rome, “with 25 per cent of daily Covid swabs coming back positive and a R rate over 1, the infection curve will likely rise at least until mid-July”.

However, albeit acknowledging the rising number of positive cases, Deputy Health Minister Andrea Costa has so far categorically excluded the possibility of re-introducing lapsed Covid measures, saying that it’ll be a “restriction-free summer”.