France and Italy are moving ahead with new measures to pressure the unvaccinated to get their Covid-19 jabs, showing how some European countries are taking a more coercive approach as they race to curb an Omicron-driven surge of infections.

While Italy has opted to make immunisation required for anyone over the age of 50, France will instead turn its “health pass” system into a “vaccine pass”. A negative test will no longer suffice to access bars, restaurants and other social activities.

With infection rates hitting record highs in many European countries, governments are grappling with ways to convince hesitant citizens to get immunised against Covid-19 in a bid to keep economies open and relieve the pressure on health systems. Many have already required immunisation for workers in healthcare and facilities for the elderly, as well as other public sector employees.

But with the more transmissible Omicron variant appearing to cause milder disease, health experts disagree over how much pressure should be exerted to increase vaccination rates given that 70 per cent of the EU population over 12 years has had one jab and immunity will be boosted as Omicron spreads.

“There is little consensus in the public health community about the best way to reach the holdouts,” said Jocelyn Raude, a professor in health psychology at the Graduate School of Public Health in Rennes. “Some people think it’s best just to leave them alone since they cannot be convinced and the epidemiological benefit of doing so may be marginal.” 

Officials are also trying to assess how additional measures will affect public enthusiasm for additional boosters if new variants emerge to prolong the pandemic.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron caused controversy on Tuesday when he said his strategy was to “piss off” the unvaccinated by making their lives as difficult as possible. But his tactics might be spurring a change in behaviour: some 66,000 people got their first dose of Covid-19 vaccine on Wednesday, three times the average daily levels seen in recent months.

As daily infections hit a record high of 332,000, the lower house of the French parliament passed the first reading of the vaccine pass law after three days of raucous debate and more than 650 amendments. The bill moved to the senate on Thursday for approval.

About 5m people have not had received any vaccine shots — or 9 per cent of the eligible French population aged over 12. They include not only committed anti-vaxxers but also housebound or isolated elderly people, as well as children and teens whose parents have chosen not to get them jabbed.

The seven-day average of cases hit record highs over recent days in 12 European countries. Current case rates in Italy, France and Spain are more than three times their pre-Omicron peak, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Cases have risen by 40 per cent in Germany and the Netherlands over the past week, while Ireland currently has Europe’s highest infection rate at 392 cases per 100,000 people.

Chart showing that Omicron is sending cases soaring to record highs across much of Europe

In Germany, the government’s plan to institute a vaccine mandate for all adults by February has been delayed to allow more time for parliamentary debate. The idea has backing from Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s ruling Social Democrats, but is not universally supported by their coalition partner, the liberal Free Democrats.

The SDP said on Thursday that it is aiming for a final decision by the end of March on the introduction of a universal vaccine mandate.

About 17 per cent of over-12s remain unvaccinated in Germany and Austria, and 21 per cent in Switzerland, the three highest rates in western Europe, according to analysis of figures from Our World in Data and the UN.

Some German health experts and the national ethics council have also questioned whether such a mandate would be useful at this stage in the pandemic.

Protests against coronavirus and vaccination measures are a weekly occurrence across Germany. With far-right groups latching on to the protest movement, some officials argue a heavier hand is needed to pressure people into vaccination, while others fear such measures would only serve to drive protesters further toward extreme groups.

“The risk is that mandating vaccination can reignite protest movements,” said Raude.

Italy’s government stopped short of implementing a general vaccination requirement.

Instead the new age-linked requirement for at least two jabs was imposed by Draghi after hours of infighting within the coalition with stricter vaccination rules demanded by the centre-left Democrats rejected by the rightwing League and populist Five Star. Workers older than 50 will also be required to show proof of vaccination to go to work.

According to government figures, 2.2m Italians aged 50 years or older remain unvaccinated.

Additional reporting by Silvia Sciorilli Borrelli in Milan and Davide Ghiglione in Rome

Source: This post first appeared on Duk News

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