ROME (Reuters) – Looking to counter the increasing menace of the coronavirus Delta variant, a growing number of European countries are raising their defences and trying to pressure more people to get vaccinated to stay safe.
Italy on Thursday followed in the footsteps of France, announcing that proof of vaccination or immunity would shortly be mandatory for an array of activities, including indoor dining and entering places such as gyms, pools, museums and cinemas.
Greece made a vaccination certificate mandatory for anyone to be allowed into indoor restaurants and bars from last week, while dozens of Portuguese municipalities introduced weekend curbs for inside dining in early July.
“The Delta variant is even more of a threat than the other variants,” Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi told reporters, defending his decision to make the so-called Green Pass obligatory to participate in much of public life.
“The Green Pass is not arbitrary, but a necessary condition not to shut down the economy. Without vaccinations, everything will have to close again,” Draghi said.
The daily number of new coronavirus infections recorded in Italy has doubled over the past week, hitting 5,057 on Thursday, while in neighbouring France, daily cases have rocketed to almost 22,000 from 10,908 on July 16.
Unlike in past COVID waves, deaths and hospitalisations have not progressed in lockstep with rising cases, thanks to mass vaccinations since the start of the year.
But with under 54% of adults fully inoculated in the European Union, governments fear there will still be tens of thousands more victims unless they speed up vaccinations.
In the week after French President Emmanuel Macron’s July 12 announcement of the bolstered health pass, a record 3.7 million French citizens signed up for a vaccination, according to the Doctolib health website.
Regional governors in Italy said there was a marked pick-up in bookings after Draghi spoke late on Thursday. “I think the prime minister has achieved what he wanted to achieve,” said Giovanni Toti, head of the northwestern Liguria region.
Other European countries are also slowly tightening the screws, to a greater or lesser extent.
Hungary on Friday made vaccinations mandatory for healthcare workers as part of its efforts to contain the pandemic, while Malta this month became the first country in the European Union to ban any visitor over the age of 12 from entering unless fully vaccinated.
After initially ruling out health passports for domestic use, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday that English nightclubs and other venues with large crowds would require proof of full vaccination from the end of September.
Germany, which has one of the lowest death rates per capita on the continent, has rejected compulsory vaccinations, saying this would undermine public trust in the inoculation campaign.
Instead, Europe’s biggest economy is seeking to persuade the sceptics and undecided by making it as easy as possible to get a jab, for instance by offering appointment-free shots in vaccination centres and sending mobile teams to rural areas.
Adopting a tougher stance hasn’t always gone smoothly.
Although Russia is in the grip of third wave and registering hundreds of deaths each day, Moscow this week had to drop its ban on people entering cafes, restaurants and bars without a health pass after owners complained it was killing business.
Meanwhile, anger over the new COVID rules in France has sparked nationwide protests, with 100,000 people taking to the streets last weekend, accusing the government of overreach.
“I’m not here because I’m against the vaccine. I’m here to defend our freedoms. We cannot be forced to get vaccinated,” Mohamed Boukifa, a 40-year-old baker, told Reuters at a mid-week demonstration in Paris.
There was little sign of such anger in Italy, which was the first country in the West to be slammed by the pandemic and has so far registered almost 128,000 deaths — the second highest tally in Europe after Britain.
“I am a green pass extremist,” said Rome resident Alberto Gaudino. “It is absolutely vital for our quality of life, for work, for health, to overcome this situation. It is stupid, simply stupid, to oppose … the green pass.”
(Additional reporting by European bureaux)