After being among the worst-hit countries by the pandemic last year, Italy began its vaccine campaign in late December but failed to focus exclusively on the most at-risk groups – the elderly.
Had it stuck more rigidly to the “ideal” plan of vaccinating older people, Italy would have suffered 8,000 fewer coronavirus deaths, according to expert Matteo Villa.
Villa, a researcher from the ISPI think-tank in Milan, said 33,000 people have died since early January. With more targeted jabs, “it could have been 25,000,” he said.
“An unbalanced strategy, the delays of the regions and vaccine cheats have brought us here,” he said on Friday.
IN CHARTS: Who is being vaccinated in Italy?
At a news conference late Thursday, Draghi warned regional governments they must improve vaccine efforts if they want to see current restrictive measures lifted, and attacked those taking jabs who were not in priority groups.
Draghi asked “in what conscience” people not eligible for the vaccine were “skipping the waiting list, trying to get vaccinated earlier, even knowing that, in this way, those over 65 or frail are left exposed to a real risk of death?”
His comments came as Italian media reported that up to 30 percent of vaccines in some regions appeared to have been incorrectly given to people who were not in priority groups.
Investigators concerned about mafia infiltration have ordered four regions – Sicily, Calabria, Campania and Valle D’Aosta – to turn over vaccination data and explain how they prioritised jabs.
Government data shows Italy has administered a total of 12 million vaccinations to date, with 4.2 million to those aged 80 and above and only 1.26 million to those in their 70s.
Meanwhile, 3.1 million have supposedly gone to health workers, a million to educational professionals – and 2.4 million to a hazy category defined as “others”.
In the regon of Puglia, thousands of the people classed as medical workers when being vaccinated were found to have no connection with the health service, the head of the region’s medical inspection unit told the Financial Times.
“We cross referenced the data with social security information and found there were many people getting doses with no right to them: friends of friends, associates, parents,” he said.
Italy’s national vaccination plan has already been criticised for allowing younger, healthier people to be vaccinated while more vulnerable older groups have been vaccinated in relatively low numbers.
Draghi on Thursday said this had to change: “The risk of death is highest for those over 75 years of age, so the elderly must be vaccinated as a matter of priority,” Draghi said.
Draghi said his government’s coronavirus emergency commissioner would now instruct regional health authorities to “stop vaccinating those under 60, young people, psychologists that are 35 years old”.
Under the previous government, Italy had initially prioritised healthcare workers and teachers as well as over-80s in the early phase of its vaccine roll-out. The aim of this plan was to protect front-line workers.
Meanwhile, some regional healthcare systems had more controversially prioritised vaccinating other groups of professionals first, including lawyers and journalists.
Academic researchers, many aged under 40 and working from home, have also been given vaccines as a priority.
Younger adults working in certain professions were initially given the vaccine when Italy was restricting the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine on older age groups – first saying it should not be used on over 55s, then over 65s.
In the latest change to the medical advice however, Italy is now recommending the AstraZeneca vaccine be used on over-60s only.
Emergency commissioner General Francesco Paolo Figliuolo on Thursday stated: “From today, the inoculation of the AstraZeneca vaccine is open to the 60-79 year old group, while those under 60 who have already received the first dose will also receive the second.”
He stressed that he would not revise Italy’s target of administering half a million doses daily by the end of April, despite the current average number of daily doses being around 240,000.
The prime minister meanwhile insisted on Thursday that: “The April doses are sufficient to vaccinate the entire population over eighty and most of the over 75”.
After Draghi’s government last updated the list of priority groups, the number of vaccine doses going to the over-70s had already increased at the start of April to six out of every ten shots administered.
However, 43 per cent of Italians aged 80 or over are still waiting for a first vaccine dose, the most recent available health ministry data shows, and 88 per cent of those aged 70-79 have not had their first dose.
The number of people in the 30-39 age group who have received a jab is currently similar to the number in their 70s.
There have also been major disparities across the country in the number of vaccines administered to the over-80s, in part due to the fact that each region manages its own health service and can set its own vaccination schedule.
The percentage of people over 80 who have been fully vaccinated ranges from almost 60 percent in South Tyrol to 14 percent in Sardinia, according to data analysis by the GIMBE independent evidence-based medicine foundation.
While Italy’s vaccine campaign is progressing similarly to those in other EU member states, the slower-than-hoped pace of the vaccine rollout is causing high levels of frustration in the country, as the death toll remains high, and is rising more sharply than in other major European countries.
Meanwhile, lockdown restrictions have been extended until at least the end of April and the government is not able to commit to reopening dates for the tourism sector and other businesses hit hard by the crisis and ongoing closures.