Will Italy bring back some Covid health measures?

The Italian health ministry has warned of a likely increase in case numbers and confirmed that it was considering new restrictions within the country, after last week bringing in a testing requirement for all arrivals from China.

A new decree proposes lifting Italy's Covid restrictions in hospitals.
An Italian hospital during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

Italy’s health ministry described the Covid-19 situation in the country as “unpredictable” as 2023 begins, urging people to be cautious and suggesting restrictions could return ahead of a likely increase in case numbers after the festive period.

At the moment case numbers in Italy are still in decline, the health ministry confirmed in a circular published on Friday.

Data from Italy’s control centre monitoring the pandemic confirmed a decreasing trend in the incidence of new cases, and stabilisation of the number of cases that require intensive care.

But as winter makes the circulation of viruses easier and case numbers rise in some countries – particularly in China – the government urged people to be cautious.

As scheduled, Italy’s government further relaxed most of the remaining containment measures within the country from December 31st – while also bringing in a testing requirement for visitors from China and suggesting that some domestic restrictions could soon return.

The health ministry recommended the voluntary use of masks indoors and said that if infection rates spike it would consider adopting “other measures such as working from home or limiting the size of gatherings”.

Rule changes so far

From January 1st, planned rule changes removed the requirement for infected people to test negative to exit quarantine following a five-day isolation period and reducing the ‘self-surveillance’ masking period for close contacts from ten to five days.

The amendments also bring an end to a requirement for all visitors to healthcare facilities, such as hospitals and care homes, to show proof of vaccination against Covid-19 or a recent negative test result.

However, the health ministry on Thursday extended a mask mandate in all healthcare settings until April 30th 2023, in the same ordinance which ordered mandatory Covid testing before boarding and upon arrival for all passengers flying to Italy from China amid concern about an explosion in the number of cases there as its borders reopen.

The rules, in force until January 31st, mean all passengers travelling to Italy from China must show a negative test result upon boarding and also undergo an antigen test upon arrival in Italy, the foreign ministry stated.

Those who tested positive on arrival would be required to isolate in Italy, it confirmed.

READ ALSO: Why has Italy ordered Covid tests for all arrivals from China?

The ministry also recommended strengthening surveillance systems and increasing genomic sequencing to detect new variants of the Sars-CoV-2 virus, and stressed the importance of indoor ventilation and vaccinations.

“High vaccination coverage, completion of vaccination cycles and maintenance of a high immune response through the booster dose represent necessary tools to mitigate the clinical impact of the epidemic,” the circular stated.

There are concerns about falling immunity rates in Italy however due to low levels of uptake of the booster jab this winter.

The government meanwhile in December scrapped a requirement for healthcare staff to be vaccinated against Covid-19, and reinstated those who were suspended from work due to refusal of the vaccine.

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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”.