Milan: Italy is making life more uncomfortable for unvaccinated people as the holidays draw near, excluding them from indoor restaurants, theatres and museums to reduce the spread of coronavirus and encourage vaccine sceptics to get their shots.
Starting Monday through Jan 15, Italian police can check whether diners in restaurants or bars have a "super" green health pass certifying that they are either vaccinated or have recently recovered from the virus. Smart phone applications that check people's health pass status will be updated and those who have merely tested negative in recent days for COVID-19 will no longer be allowed into concerts, movies or performances.
The number of new COVID-19 infections in Italy has been on a gradual rise for the past six weeks, even before concerns arose about the new omicron variant. That's a worrying trend as Italians plan holiday parties and getaways to spend time with friends and family. Christmas travel and holiday gatherings were strictly limited last year due to a steeper rise in contagion.
While both Germany and Austria are moving toward making vaccines obligatory, Italy is instead tightening restrictions on the unvaccinated at the most convivial time of the year - while allowing those who are vaccinated go about life more or less as usual.
Italy's vaccination rate is higher than many of its neighbours, at 85% of the eligible population aged 12 and older and 77% of the total population. But people in their 30s, 40s and 50s have proved the most reluctant to get vaccinated, with nearly 3.5 million still not having received their first doses.
They are also the same age group that is now being hardest hit by the virus, according to Silvio Brusaferro, head of Italy's National Health Institute.
Also starting Monday, people must have a health pass to access local public transportation and stay in hotels - that can be acquired also with a negative recent test. In Milan, the prefect said health passes will be checked before people are allowed onto the subway or buses.
With the holiday shopping season heating up, many cities including Rome and Milan have ordered mask mandates even outdoors.
Public health officials say vaccinations, along with prudent public behaviour including wearing masks in crowds, are key to reducing infection levels as winter weather pushes more activities indoors. They credit Italy's relatively high level of immunisation as one reason that the infection curve is not as steep as last winter, when broad restrictions were imposed with the spread of the delta variant.
"It is clear that after two years of the pandemic, we cannot easily close schools to physical classes and shut down economic activity," said Gianni Rezza, the health ministry's director of prevention.
"Therefore, you can try to keep the virus spread down with measures that are sustainable, and with proper use of the health pass. Then the big bet is on the vaccinations," he said.