On Thursday, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi announced that his cabinet had signed off on a ‘reopening decree’ or decreto riapertura containing the timeline for easing the country’s Covid restrictions.
The decree’s official text has yet to be published, but according to Italian news reports, it provides for the gradual relaxation of Italy’s ‘green pass’ Covid health certificate rules from April 1st, and the scrapping of the green pass from May 1st in all contexts outside of hospitals and care homes.
Masks will also reportedly no longer be required in indoor venues or on public transport from May 1st; and a vaccination mandate currently in place for all those in Italy who are over 50 or due to turn 50 by June 15th is set to expire on that date.
Italy’s Covid-related state of emergency or stato di emergenza, active since January 31st, 2020, will officially come to an end on March 31st.
In the light of the country’s rising Covid infection curve, some health experts warn the rules are being relaxed too soon.
A report from Italy’s Higher Institute of Health (ISS) on Friday showed that its infection rate has continued to climb over the past week, with confirmed case numbers standing at almost 70 thousand as of March 20th.
These figures have led Nino Cartabellotta, president of Italy’s evidence-based medicine foundation Gimbe, to denounce the goverment’s plans to eliminate indoor mask mandates as “madness”.
Other health professionals, however, citing the public’s fatigue with Covid restrictions and the need to pave the way for a return to normality, have embraced the proposals.
Interviewed by the news outlet Adnkronos, Matteo Bassetti, director of the Infectious Diseases Clinic at the San Martino Polyclinic in Genoa, spoke in favour of the government’s plans.
“It seems to me that, in general, Prime Minister Draghi listens more to the common sense of a part of science than his Health Minister and he is right to do so,” Bassetti is reported to have said.
“All the European countries are already doing it and now we will do it too, it is a decision that we can share in.”
Quoted in the Il Giorno news daily, the virologist Fabrizio Pregliasco, a professor at the State University of Milan, agreed.
Having previously warned against the dangers of “turning on the hot water tap all of a sudden,” Pregliasco praised the government’s gradual timeline and applauded “the prudence that has always correctly distinguished the Italian approach over and above our impulses and the desire for a return to normality.”
“We have to face reality,” concurs Andrea Crisanti, director of the Department of Molecular Microbiology at the University of Padua, who, speaking on the Radio 24 programme 24 Mattino last week, voiced his approval of the government’s plans to abolish preemptive quarantine for close contacts of Covid patients.
“If we were talking about the Wuhan variant I would disagree, but with this latest variant which has a transmission index of 12, in which most people are asymptomatic, plus the vaccinated – if they become infected they don’t even notice it, and the impact that quarantine has is limited.”
“You have to look at things for what they are. The picture has completely changed compared to how it was at the beginning.”
Other commentators, however, are more cautious.
“Yesterday there were almost 80,000 Covid infections in Italy,” Massimo Galli, former director of infectious diseases at the Sacco Hospital in Milan, told Adnkronos Health on Friday in response to Thursday’s press conference.
“It is clear that this is not over. A misunderstood ‘free everyone’ message could cost us dearly when it comes to the pandemic. It seems like a déjà-vu. It’s important not to think that the matter is over and done with.”
“The health emergency is not over,” echoes Walter Ricciardi, Professor of General and Applied Hygiene at the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery of the Catholic University and the Minister of Health’s scientific advisor for the coronavirus.
“On the health level, the crisis will continue and, probably, the growth of infections will continue and – if we do not stop them – there will be a strong wave between June and July.”
“Pre-pandemic decision-making mechanisms will need to be restored. We will need to be very careful because if we do not coordinate well in this phase, in the absence of legal state of emergency measures, there will be an open door for the virus to circulate between the regions.”
Last week’s ISS report showed a gradual increase in Covid case numbers, though hospitalisations and deaths remain in decline.
While most health experts agree that Italy’s government is right to have put together a roadmap laying out a return to normality, they caution that its leaders should continue to closely monitor and act in response to the data.
Mario Clerici, professor of immunology at the University of Milan and scientific director of the Don Gnocchi Foundation, believes that given that “sooner or later the obligation to wear masks indoors must be removed,” the government’s timeline makes sense.
He himself, however, intends to continue wearing a mask for several more months, and expects the “vast majority” of Italians to do the same, as it makes people feel reassured.
Clerici also thinks the decree could have been clearer, complaining that the government “could not have made it more complex”.
In particular, the provision that allows for tourists, but not Italian residents, to dine indoors at restaurants during the month of April without producing a ‘green pass’ Covid health certificate “seems somewhat absurd and difficult to put into practice,” he argues.
Currently, a ‘super green pass’ showing the holder has been vaccinated against or recovered from Covid is required to access most venues and services in Italy, including all public transport. A ‘basic green pass’, which can be obtained by testing negative for the virus, is required to access the workplace and most shops.
The epidemiologist Pier Luigi Lopalco, a professor of hygiene at the University of Salento, would prefer if the government’s green pass requirements were maintained for at least the next few months.
“It has proved to be the only effective weapon to increase adherence to the anti Covid vaccination. It’s a tool that worked,” he told Adnkronos.
“It costs nothing to keep it until the summer. Putting out this message in a situation where throughout the spring there will continue to be a very high viral circulation could be useful.”