With Europe’s rise in coronavirus infections accelerating, more governments are seeking ways to force the unvaccinated, mainly in their twenties and thirties, to get inoculated, and avoid a return to lockdowns.
Italy and Britain have followed France’s lead in planning or imposing restrictions on the unvaccinated. The moves prompted street protests in both countries Sunday and Saturday. Several British Conservative lawmakers are threatening to boycott their party’s annual conference later this year because of vaccination requirements for attendees.
Initial evidence, however, suggests compulsion is working. Within 24 hours of Italy announcing that from next month entry to sports stadiums, museums, cinemas, swimming pools and gyms will only be permitted for people who’ve been inoculated, appointments for vaccinations soared in some regions by 200%, say authorities in Rome.
France saw a similar spike in vaccine bookings after it announced that certification — in other words a digital vaccine passport — would be needed to enter many venues.
The Italian government has prolonged its state of emergency to December 31 but is desperately trying to avoid lockdowns or reintroducing tighter restrictions for regions seeing spikes in confirmed cases, such as Lazio, Sicily, Veneto and Sardinia. Prime Minister Mario Draghi told reporters last week, “The health pass is an instrument to allow Italians to continue their activities with the guarantee of not being among contagious people.”
“No vaccines means new lockdowns,” he added.
Draghi had intended for the measure to go further and wanted to include vaccination requirements for counter service in bars and for traveling on long-distance trains, but had to weaken the measure in the face of resistance from Matteo Salvini and his Lega party, who threatened to block the restrictions in parliament.
Salvini was belatedly was inoculated Friday. The populist nationalist leader spoke out last week against compelling or seeking to coerce people to get the jab.
“I'm interested in not ruining the lives of millions of Italians who are not yet covered by the vaccine,” he said. “Many cannot do it, for health reasons. Complicating the lives of these people with the obligation of the Green pass? Let's not joke. We can't stop in mid-July, a tourist season that is painstakingly restarting.” By Green pass, he was referring to vaccine passports.
That earned a sharp rebuke from Draghi, who shot back at a press conference, “The appeal to the No Vax is an invitation to die.”
Thousands of Italians disagree with their prime minister and Saturday took to the streets in dozens of towns across the country to protest the new measure, which comes into effect August 6.
“Better to die free than live like slaves!” read a banner waved outside Milan’s cathedral, while another in Rome was captioned, “Vaccines set you free” over a picture of the gates to Auschwitz, according to AFP reports.
An estimated 160,000 people protested nationwide in France Saturday against making health passports a key tool in the bid to curb infections. Dozens of people were arrested, according to French police. Twenty-nine policemen were injured.
The protests came hours before lawmakers hammered out a compromise deal between members of the National Assembly and Senate and approved a measure that requires proof of a double vaccination, recent recovery from the virus or a negative test for entry into entertainment venues. Proposed criminal sanctions for businesses that don’t check health passports were removed from the measure that passed.
Under the terms, employees of establishments that require a health pass cannot be dismissed if they refuse to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing, but will be required to take annual leave and thereafter unpaid leave.
“Nice evening for democracy, bad for the virus,” tweeted health minister Olivier Véran.
French President Emmanuel Macron, responding to accusations by vaccine opponents that he is trampling on individual liberty, said, “Everyone is free to express themselves calmly with respect for one another. But freedom where I owe nothing to someone else does not exist.”
French health authorities reported nearly 23,000 new confirmed cases Saturday, mainly of the high contagious delta variant.
Despite the raucous protests, the signs both in Italy and France are that tougher vaccination-related restrictions have public backing, with recent opinion polls in Italy and France suggesting support ranges from between 65% and 70%.
Since Macron announced his plans for health pass rules two weeks ago, six million people in France have signed up for vaccinations.
In Britain, too, there is pushback to new proposed rules from an alliance of anti-vaxxers and libertarians on both the left and right of the political spectrum. After weeks of rejecting the idea of a regime of vaccine passports, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has been urging young people to get vaccinated, turned to the stick, too. Come September, vaccine passports will be needed to enter nightclubs and sports stadiums.
The tougher line came as the government’s own private polling suggested young people were far less likely to take up the offer of vaccinations than their older counterparts, government officials told VOA. Public polling by YouGov, a British pollster, has shown the same thing. According to a recent YouGov survey, people aged 16 to 34 are twice as likely to refuse the jab as those between the ages of 55 and 75.
Part of the reason for the schism is that the young feel they are at a much-reduced risk from the virus, say the government’s scientific advisers, and they are more susceptible to vaccine-conspiracy theories via social media, they add.
In Britain and other European countries, governments are being unnerved by the sluggish take-up of the jabs as a delta-driven pandemic picks up steam. In Greece, around 44% of the population is fully vaccinated. Greece’s government has announced mandatory vaccinations for health workers and other staff at hospitals and clinics.
But the government is encountering fierce resistance from some senior Greek Orthodox clerics, despite the support for the government from Archbishop Ieronymos, the church’s primate, who last year spent several days in intensive care after contracting the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease.
Earlier this month, the Greek health minister, Vasilis Kikilias, met with the Synod, the church’s governing body, in an effort to persuade officials to back the vaccination campaign. The Synod, though, would only support the “free choice of vaccination as the exclusive and scientifically tested solution to stop the spread of the virus.” It added that prayer and “participation in worship” were also important and refrained from rebuking anti-vax clerics.
Germany, too, is now considering imposing restrictions on the unvaccinated, after weeks of German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying she disapproved of the idea. The change of heart coincides with warnings from disease modelers that cases are likely to increase by more than 60% per week.
“Vaccinated people will definitely have more freedoms than unvaccinated people,” Merkel's chief of staff, Helge Braun, said in a broadcast interview Sunday.
But there’s fierce debate within the ruling Christian Democratic Party about the tougher retractions on the unvaccinated with the party’s candidate to succeed Merkel in September elections, Armin Laschet, opposing efforts to compel people. “I do not believe in compulsory vaccination, and I do not believe in indirectly putting pressure on people to get vaccinated," he told ZDF television Sunday.