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EDUCATION

How big is Italy’s anti-vax movement – and will it stop mandatory Covid vaccines for teachers?

As Italy looks at making Covid-19 vaccines mandatory for school staff, how do people in the country feel about the idea - and how strong is Italy's ‘No Vax’ sentiment really?

How big is Italy's anti-vax movement - and will it stop mandatory Covid vaccines for teachers?
Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

The Italian government is meeting this week to discuss whether Covid-19 vaccinations should become compulsory for school staff, as is already the case for healthcare workers in the country.

Over 51 percent of the Italian population over 12 years old is now fully vaccinated – a threshold which has reignited the debate on achieving complete vaccine coverage of key workers in education ahead of the new academic year.

READ ALSO: How many people in Italy still aren’t vaccinated?

Some 221,000 teachers and other school staff still haven’t received a single dose of an anti-Covid vaccine, amounting to just over 15 percent of the total, according to the government’s latest weekly figures.

It is “absolutely necessary to give priority to teaching in school for the 2021-2022 school year,” stated the Scientific Technical Committee (CTS), which advises the Italian government on health measures.

The committee warned of the potential social and psychological impact on students if they have to face another year of online learning, or ‘DAD’ (Didattica a Distanza).

Vaccinating as many students over 12 is a priority this summer as Italy looks at ways to ensure schools can open – and stay open – in September.

READ ALSO: Italian schools set to keep using masks and distancing from September

Photo: Vincenzo PINTO/AFP

But while the country is unlikely to require students to get tested, it is considering making the jab mandatory for education staff as part of a decree set to be announced this week.

The issue has been a hot topic of debate in Italy’s parliament. But though vaccine-sceptic politicians get a lot of coverage in Italian and internatonal media, how representative are their views?

What’s being said in the debate?

Several ministers and party leaders within Italy’s broad coalition government have pushed for all school staff to be vaccinated by September in order to prevent more school closures.

Education Minister Patrizio Bianchi, who’s not attached to any political party, expressed hope that jabs would become compulsory amongst those working in schools.

“We will meet this week with the Council of Ministers on the decision on whether or not teachers should be vaccinated,” he confirmed, as reported by news agency Ansa.

It’s a perspective echoed by the leader of the Democratic Party, Enrico Letta: “Vaccinations are an absolute priority, we invite the government to take stringent initiatives,” reported Ansa.

Political resistance to the scientific recommendations is led by Matteo Salvini, leader of the hard-right populist League party.

“Talking about making 13-14 year-olds and teachers get vaccinated is not part of my way of thinking about a free country,” he said in an interview with newspaper La Repubblica.

READ ALSO: Italy opens Covid vaccinations to everyone aged over 12

He has expressed the opinion that if you’re under 40, getting vaccinated is “not necessary”.

It’s a view that has been slammed by Italian health minister Roberto Speranza, who said: “In the debate on vaccines, ambiguity on the part of any political force is not acceptable,” reported Ansa.

“Our scientists strongly recommend ithe vaccine even under the age of 40,” Speranza stressed.

Another prominent voice is politician Sara Cunial, formerly a member of the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) – a party previously opposed to legislation that made vaccinations against ten diseases compulsory for schoolchildren in Italy

M5S, which was part of a previous coaltiion government at the time, was also the party jointly responsible for making repeated changes to the rules on vaccinating children before starting school – a move criticised by teachers’ representatives at he time as causing “chaos” in schools due to a lack of clarity.

How big is the anti-vaccine movement in Italy?

Il Movimento 3V is a political party that was set up by independent groups and associations in 2019 to support the anti-vaccination campaign, attracting a lot of M5S supporters.

In 2020, it won almost 11,000 votes in the northern region of Emilia Romagna, which was too small a number to win any seats but gives an idea of the scale of distrust of vaccinations in Italy, reports news site Coda.

Protests against vaccinations in Italy tend to be on the small side, such as one organised in Florence by Il Movimento 3V last year at which 5,000 people gathered.

The percentage of the population in Italy with anti-vaccination views is a smaller proportion than in neighbouring France, for example.

In Italy, the number of people who said they “definitely or probably will not” get vaccinated against Covid-19 is around 12 percent, according to a study of seven countries carried out in February 2021.

In France, the level of self-reported vaccine scepticism was more than double that figure (although more than three million people in France have rushed to book their jabs since Macron’s announcement last week). Numbers were similar in Germany.

Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

According to research carried out in March this year by the BBC, the number of followers of pages sharing extreme anti-vaccine content in France – which it described as “one of the most vaccine-hesitant nations in the world” – rose in 2020 from 3.2 million to nearly 4.1 million likes.

The UK also has a considerable level of distrust for vaccinations – one in five (21 percent) said they’d refuse a shot, according to a 2020 survey by YouGov. However, only a fraction of those respondents cited ‘anti-vax’ views as the reason for it.

Meanwhile, social media campaigns against vaccines in the Italian language exist on a much smaller scale than in the English language, the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) reported.

The Facebook page of the press office of ‘Comilva’, an acronym for the ‘Coordination of the Italian Movement for Freedom of Vaccination’, for example, has some 5,000 followers.

Italy also has local politicians who are very vocal about their anti-vaccination views – which in some cases are extreme and attract a lot of media attention.

For example, the deputy mayor of Bistagno in the province of Alessandria, Riccardo Blengio, has been heavily criticised over Facebook posts making comparisons with vaccines and the Auschwitz concentration camp, reports La Repubblica.

Of course, not all those who are sceptical or hesitant about vaccination are voicing such views.

Lawyers representing hundreds of the nation’s healthcare workers, who are taking the government to court over the mandatory vaccination ule for employees in this sector, said they objected on “democratic” grounds 

“This isn’t a battle by anti-vaxxers but a democratic battle,” constitutional lawyer Daniele Granara, who helped build up the case, was cited as saying in the Giornale di Brescia newspaper.

“We force people to take a risk under threat of no longer being allowed to exercise their profession,” he added.

Research suggest however that overall, attitudes in Italy and worldwide are moving towards greater willingness to get a jab.

According one study by YouGov in April this year, 57 percent of respondents in Italy were prepared to get a shot, compared with 41 percent back in November.

COVID-19 RULES

Will Italy drop its Covid isolation rule as the infection rate falls?

The health ministry is reviewing its quarantine requirements as the country's Covid-19 health situation improved again this week, according to Italian media reports.

Will Italy drop its Covid isolation rule as the infection rate falls?

Italy has taken a more cautious approach to Covid in recent months than many of its European neighbours, keeping strict isolation rules in place for anyone who tests positive for the virus.

But this could be set to change in the coming days, according to media reports, as one of Italy’s deputy health ministers said the government is about to cut the isolation period for asymptomatic cases.

“Certainly in the next few days there will be a reduction in isolation for those who are positive but have no symptoms,” Deputy Health Minister Andrea Costa said in a TV interview on the political talk show Agorà on Tuesday.

“We have to manage to live with the virus,” he said.

Italy’s La Stampa newspaper reported that the compulsory isolation period could be reduced to 48 hours for those who test positive but remain asymptomatic – provided they subsequently test negative after the day two mark.

Under Italy’s current rules, vaccinated people who test positive must stay in isolation for at least seven days, and unvaccinated people for ten days – regardless of whether or not they have any symptoms.

READ ALSO: How tourists and visitors can get a coronavirus test in Italy

At the end of the isolation period, the patient has to take another test to exit quarantine. Those who test negative are free to leave; those who remain positive must stay in isolation until they get a negative test result, up to a maximum of 21 days in total (at which point it doesn’t matter what the test result says).

Health ministry sources indicated the new rules would cut the maximum quarantine period to 15 or even 10 days for people who continue to test positive after the initial isolation period is up, La Stampa said.

The government is believed to be reviewing the rules as the latest official data showed Covid infection and hospitalisation rates were slowing again this week, as the current wave of contagions appeared to have peaked in mid-July.

However, the national Rt number (which shows the rate of transmission) remained above the epidemic threshold, and the number of fatalities continued to rise.

The proposed changes still aren’t lenient enough for some parties. Regional authorities have been pushing for an end to quarantine altogether, even for people who are actively positive – an idea Costa appears sympathetic to.

“The next step I think is to consider the idea of even eliminating the quarantine, perhaps by wearing a mask and therefore being able to go to work,” he told reporters.

“We must review the criteria for isolation, to avoid blocking the country again”.

At least one health expert, however, was unenthusiastic about the proposal.

Dr Nino Cartabellotta, head of Italy’s evidence-based medicine group Gimbe, tweeted on Tuesday: “There are currently no epidemiological or public health reasons to abolish the isolation of Covid-19 positives”

Massimo Andreoni, professor of Infectious Diseases at the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery of the Tor Vergata University of Rome, was more ambivalent about the prospect.

The isolation requirement for asymptomatic cases should be “revised somewhat in the light of the epidemiological data”, he told reporters, but urged “a minimum of precaution, because the less the virus circulates and the fewer severe cases there are, the fewer new variants arise”.

When the question was last raised at the end of June, Health Minister Roberto Speranza was firmly against the idea of lifting quarantine requirements for people who were Covid positive.

“At the moment such a thing is not in question,” he told newspaper La Repubblica at the time. “Anyone who is infected must stay at home.”

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