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COVID-19 VACCINES

PM Mario Draghi hits out at the unvaccinated for Italy’s Covid problems

Prime Minister Mario Draghi urged Italians Monday to get vaccinated against coronavirus, blaming those who were not for "most of the problems we facing", as Italy again tightened its Covid-19 rules.

A medical worker fills a syringe with a dose of a Comirnaty Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine at a new vaccination hub in Italy.
Italy's prime minister Mario Draghi has laid the blame for the latest rise in Covid infections at the feet of the unvaccinated. Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

New restrictions came into force Monday barring the unvaccinated from restaurants, gyms, swimming pools, theatres, cinemas, sports events and public transport, with only those recently recovered from Covid-19 exempt.

The measures were introduced in the face of a sharp rise in infections in Italy, the first European country hit by coronavirus in early 2020, which has since recorded almost 140,000 Covid-19 deaths.

EXPLAINED: Where you need Italy’s Covid vaccine pass from Monday

At a press conference, Draghi emphasised that despite the rising cases – another 100,000 were reported on Monday – the situation was different from last winter when the vaccination campaign had yet to begin and lockdowns were required to stop hospitals becoming overwhelmed.

“Most of the problems we are facing today depend on the fact that there are unvaccinated people,” he said.

“Unvaccinated people have a much higher chance of developing the disease and severe forms of the disease,” he said, saying they were putting hospitals under pressure – and urging “all the Italians who are not yet vaccinated to do so”.

More than 86 percent of people over the age of 12 in Italy are fully vaccinated, while 23 million of the 60-million-strong population have had a booster jab.

Vaccines are also open to children aged five and over.

The government is also making vaccines obligatory for the over 50s from next month. The new rules dictate that everyone currently aged 50 and over in Italy, as well as anyone due to turn 50 by June 15, 2022, is now required to get a Covid vaccine.

The majority of schools opened Monday for a new term despite calls from headteachers, the doctors’ union and some mayors to delay the return to class for at least two weeks.

READ ALSO: Back to school: What are Italy’s new Covid restrictions in classrooms?

Hundreds of councils across the country kept their schools closed, according to media reports, but Draghi repeated that keeping children in class was a priority.

“We want to be careful, very careful, but also try to minimise the economic and social effects and above all the effects on boys and girls who have been affected more than others by the closures, from a psychological and educational point of view,” he said.

Top virologist Massimo Galli at the Sacco de Milan hospital earlier warned opening schools was “imprudent and unjustified”, while public health expert Walter Ricciardi described the situation as “explosive”.

The high number of cases is also having an economic effect – Trenitalia said Monday it had cancelled 180 regional trains due to staff shortages.

The so-called Super Green Pass showing proof of vaccination or recent recovery is required in almost all public places and on public transport until March 31st, while FFP2 masks are mandatory in many places.

Calendar: When do Italy’s Covid-19 rules change?

Unvaccinated residents on Italy’s small islands, which had warned they risked being cast into “forced exile” by the new rules, have been permitted to travel with a negative Covid test until February 10th for health or educational reasons.

COVID-19 VACCINES

Italy’s deputy health minister under fire after casting doubt on Covid vaccines

Opposition leaders called for health undersecretary Marcello Gemmato to resign on Tuesday after the official said he was not "for or against" vaccines.

Italy's deputy health minister under fire after casting doubt on Covid vaccines

Gemmato, a pharmacist and member of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party, made the remark during an appearance on the political talkshow ReStart on Rai 2 on Monday evening.

READ ALSO: Covid vaccines halved Italy’s death toll, study finds

In a widely-shared clip, the official criticises the previous government’s approach to the Covid pandemic, claiming that for a large part of the crisis Italy had the highest death rate and third highest ‘lethality’ rate (the proportion of Covid patients who died of the disease).

When journalist Aldo Cazzullo interjects to ask whether the toll would have been higher without vaccines, Gemmato responds: “that’s what you say,” and claimed: “We do not have the reverse burden of proof.”

The undersecretary goes on to say that he won’t “fall into the trap of taking a side for or against vaccines”.

After Gemmato’s comments, the president of Italy’s National Federation of Medical Guilds, Filippo Anelli, stressed that official figures showed the Italian vaccination campaign had already prevented some 150,000 deaths, slashing the country’s potential death toll by almost half.

Vaccines also prevented eight million cases of Covid-19, over 500,000 hospitalisations, and more than 55,000 admissions to intensive care, according to a report from Italy’s national health institute (ISS) in April 2021.

Gemmato’s comments provoked calls for him to step down, including from the head of the centre-left Democratic Party, Enrico Letta.

“A health undersecretary who doesn’t take his distance from no-vaxxers is certainly in the wrong job” wrote the leader of the centrist party Action, Carlo Calenda, on Twitter.

Infectious disease expert Matteo Bassetti of Genoa’s San Martino clinic also expressed shock.

“How is it possible to say that there is no scientific proof that vaccines have helped save the lives of millions of people? You just have to read the scientific literature,” Bassetti tweeted. 

In response to the backlash, Gemmato on Tuesday put out a statement saying he believes “vaccines are precious weapons against Covid” and claiming that his words were taken out of context and misused against him.

The Brothers of Italy party was harshly critical of the previous government’s approach to handling the Covid crisis, accusing the former government of using the pandemic as an excuse to “limit freedom” through its use of the ‘green pass’, a proof of vaccination required to access public spaces. 

But since coming into power, Meloni appears to have significantly softened her stance.

Her appointee for health minister, Orazio Schillaci, is a medical doctor who formed part of the team advising the Draghi administration on its handling of the pandemic.

Schillaci, a former dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery at Rome’s Tor Vergata University, has described the former government’s green pass scheme as an “indispensable tool for guaranteeing safety in university classrooms”.

Speaking at a session of the G20 on Tuesday, Meloni referenced the role of vaccines in bringing an end to the Covid pandemic.

“Thanks to the extraordinary work of health personnel, vaccines, prevention, and the accountability of citizens, life has gradually returned to normal,’ the prime minister said in a speech.

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