Italy to start Covid-19 ‘green pass’ rule, irrespective of protests in Rome

What started off as a restless but peaceful demonstration against the looming measure in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo ended up sparking a tinderbox when an offshoot of protesters stormed the headquarters of CGIL, Italy’s oldest and biggest labor union. 

Thousands of protesters including members of far-right groups demonstrated in central Rome on Saturday against the extension of the Covid-19 health pass system to all workplaces. There were scuffles with police as the demonstrators took aim at the health pass, which has been a requirement to enter museums, sporting events, and restaurants since August.

Central Rome was gripped with violence this weekend as thousands of protesters marched against the toughest new vaccine mandates in the world. All Italians will soon be required to show a coronavirus “Green Pass,” proving either vaccination, recovery in the past six months, or a negative COVID-19 test from the past 48 hours to enter their workplaces.

What started off as a restless but peaceful demonstration against the looming measure in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo ended up sparking a tinderbox when an offshoot of protesters stormed the headquarters of CGIL, Italy’s oldest and biggest labor union.

When they marched toward the prime minister’s office, police responded with water cannon and tear gas. Dozens of police officers were hurt in the melee.

In a bizarre twist, the unrest created a security incident for U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was in Rome for a meeting with foreign leaders, including Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Pope Francis. She was attending Mass at St. Patrick’s Church and scheduled to give a reading when the chaos outside moved Italian government officials to remove the speaker and her husband from the premises.

Loud chants of “liberta’” (freedom) echoed throughout the Eternal City. Freedom, the protesters demanded, from the national vaccine mandate scheduled to go into effect on October 15.

The Green Pass has been required in Italy since August for anyone wishing to dine indoors, use long-distance trains or almost any form of leisure activity. But the new restrictions go further than any other country in the world, and some workers face suspension without pay if they fail to comply.

“I consider this to be criminal and cowardly blackmail by our highest institutions,” said Maria Ballarin, a retiree who joined the march.

“There will finally be a revolution in Italy,” said another protester, Carolina, who works in the fashion industry. “We won’t go to work.”

Some of the protesters accused of violence have been identified as card-carrying members of a neo-fascist political group. Roberto Fiore, the leader of the extreme-right group Forza Nuova, was among 12 people arrested. Forza Nuova remained unapologetic after the rioting.

“The popular revolution will not stop, with or without us, until the Green Pass is definitively withdrawn,” the group said in a statement. “Saturday was a watershed between the old and the new. The people decided to raise the level of the clash.”

Although the march was authorised, several hundred people broke off from the main column and tried to march on parliament. Police used water cannon and tear gas to stop them, arresting several protesters during clashes, the AGI news agency reported.

A separate protest took place in the capital and others in the northern city of Milan and in Cesena, central Italy.

Three weeks ago the government of prime minister Mario Draghi announced that the scheme would be extended to all places of work from October 15 and any employees refusing to comply faced suspension without pay. The health pass system is already in place for all medical workers. It requires people to provide a certificate of vaccination, proof of recovery from Covid-19, or a recent negative test result.

Retiree Maria Ballarin denounced “criminal and cowardly blackmail” by the Italian state.

By not making vaccinations compulsory but forcing workers to have them “it absolves itself of any responsibility for fatal or serious consequences, but indirectly obliges people to be vaccinated in order to be able to go to work”, she said.

“We were both suspended two months ago,” Cosimo, one of the protesters, told AFP. He and his wife Morena are both nurses.

The couple says they have immunity and allergy problems and were exempted from the vaccination requirement by their family doctor. But both were suspended without pay.

Stefano, who came from Como in the north to join Saturday’s protest, said he would take the test. “I have to pay to work, it’s absurd,” he said. Nearly 80 per cent of the over-12s in Italy have been fully vaccinated, according to government statistics. The first European country to feel the full force of the pandemic, Italy has so suffered more than 130,000 deaths.

Some Italian lawmakers are calling for such groups to be dismantled, recalling the 20-year fascist rule of dictator Benito Mussolini, who took over Italy’s government almost 100 years go.  

“The events… take us back to the darkest and most dramatic moments of our history and they are an extremely serious and unacceptable attack on democracy,” said Valeria Fedeli, a Senator for the center-left Democratic Party. 

Police said they had identified about 600 people who took part in the violence after studying video.

Despite the outrage of some over the national vaccine mandates, however, it’s a minority opinion in Italy, where 80% of residents over the age of 12 are already fully vaccinated — a government target that was reached on Saturday, the same day as the protests.

Only about 66% of over-12s in the U.S. have been fully vaccinated.

Polls show that most Italians believe the new rules will help ensure the hell of last year — when the country literally ran out of space to bury its dead — never happens again.

Italy has registered 131,274 deaths linked to COVID-19 since February last year, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the ninth-highest in the world.

Hospitalizations have been steadily declining since early summer.

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