Italy to give timeline for easing Covid rules as case numbers fall

Italy is about to enter a "new phase" of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to government ministers, as the vaccination rate rises and the health situation continues to improve across most of the country.

People wear face masks as they walk in central Rome.
Covid-19 cases are on the rise in Austria. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

As Italy’s latest decree changing the country’s Covid rules came into force over the weekend, very little effectively changed for most people in the country. 

The government’s update, which it said was aimed at simplifying the country’s mass of pandemic-related restrictions, contained measures which altered the quarantine rules in schools and effectively scrapped the nationwide coloured ‘zone’ system for the 90 percent of the population who are vaccinated.

READ ALSO: Green pass and red zones: How Italy’s latest decree changes the Covid rules

The decree also aimed to make it easier for visitors to access venues and services under the country’s health pass scheme – including if they’ve had a vaccine not currently recognised by Italian authorities.

But while the decree clarified various aspects of Italy’s health measures, it doesn’t yet mean any significant easing of the rules for most of the population.

Ministers insisted at the end of last week however that the improving health situation in Italy meant things would soon start to change.

As the latest decree was finalised on Thursday, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said the measures were “going in the direction of an even greater reopening of the country”, according to reports from national broadcaster Rai.

“In the coming weeks we will continue on this path towards reopening,” he said. 

“Based on the scientific evidence, and continuing to follow the trend of the epidemiological curve, we will announce a timeline for overcoming the current restrictions”.

People wearing face masks walk in central Milan. Photo: Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Meanwhile on Friday, the health minister hailed the beginning of “a new phase” for the country as Italy exceeded 90 percent vaccination coverage.

“We’ve got 91 percent of Italians over the age of 12 who have received their first dose of an anti-Covid vaccine, 88 percent who’ve had two doses and have completed the primary cycle, and almost 35 million having had the booster too,” Health Minister Roberto Speranza told reporters.

“This enables us to open a new phase in the fight against Covid,” he said.

“We still have to keep our feet on the ground and remain prudent, but for the first time in many weeks we are looking with confidence at the numbers, which are finally improving”. 

Italian authorities said the country reached the ‘peak’ of the current wave of contagions at the end of January.

Daily case numbers continue to gradually fall, with 93,157 infections reported on Saturday, February 5th, down from 99,522 the day before, while the number of deaths decreased to 375 from 433, health ministry data showed.

The occupancy rate in intensive care dropped overall last week, health ministry data showed, to 14.8 and in general wards the figure fell to 29.5 percent.

However the situation is not the same in every part of the country. Scientific experts estimate that the curve is flattening “in about two thirds of Italian provinces” according to reports on Sunday, and they stress that incidence rates remain high across the country,

While the picture is looking more positive overall, Italian health experts continue to urge caution and issue reminders that the end of the current wave is not the same thing as the end of the pandemic.

it remains unclear what the government’s promised “new phase” will look like, or exactly which rules may be eased and when.

The next update on the country’s Covid restrictions is due by February 10th, when the outdoor mask mandate and the closure of nightclubs and dance venues are up for review again after both rules were recently extended.

On February 15th however, green pass rules are scheduled to tighten for the over-50s as a reinforced or ‘super’ green pass will become mandatory in workplaces for this age group.

The Italian green pass system itself is not expected to be scaled back anytime soon, with some experts including Walter Ricciardi, an advisor to the health minister, maintaining that it must stay in place over summer “at least”.

These rules can only remain in force however under the nationwide state of emergency, which creates the conditions for the government to pass new laws urgently by decree.

Italy’s state of emergency is currently set to expire on March 31st, 2022. It is not yet known whether the government plans to extend it.

For more information about Covid-19 restrictions in Italy please see the Italian health ministry’s website (available in English).

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‘Not offensive’: Italian minister defends Covid testing rule for China arrivals

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani defended the policy of testing all arrivals from China for Covid-19 after Beijing said the policy "lacks scientific basis".

'Not offensive': Italian minister defends Covid testing rule for China arrivals

“It seems perfectly normal to me,” Tajani told Italian state broadcaster Rai on Tuesday. “Having a test is a way to protect people’s health. There is nothing offensive about it.”

“Lots of Chinese and Italians coming from China do it (anyway),” he claimed.

READ ALSO: Is the EU likely to reinstate Covid travel restrictions?

Italy was the first European country to make testing on arrival a requirement for passengers arriving on flights from China last week, after a surge in the infection rate there.

Italian Health Minister Orazio Schillaci said on Wednesday that the screening requirement was “essential to ensure the surveillance and identification of any variants of the virus in order to protect the Italian population”.

READ ALSO: Italy pushes for EU-wide China Covid measures as tests show no new variants

France and Spain have since introduced similar rules (as well as non-EU countries including the UK and USA) and there is now a meeting scheduled for Wednesday of the EU Integrated Policy Response Capability to discuss coordinating measures.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said the screening policy would be “ineffective” if not done on a European level, as only people arriving on direct flights from China were being tested in Italy, not those with stopovers.

But the Chinese government on Tuesday hit out at countries introducing a policy of mandatory testing for people arriving from China.

“Some countries have taken entry restrictions targeting only Chinese travellers,” foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning was quoted as saying at a briefing by AFP.

“This lacks scientific basis and some practices are unacceptable”.

She said Beijing may “take countermeasures based on the principle of reciprocity”.