San Marino abortion debate heats up ahead of historic referendum

By Angelo Amante and Emily Roe

SAN MARINO (Reuters) – One of Europe’s staunchest opponents to legal abortion could fall on Sunday when San Marino, a tiny and deeply Catholic republic landlocked in Italy, holds a referendum to overturn a law dating back to 1865.

A “Yes” vote will bring some relief for pro-choice supporters further afield who have been dismayed as authorities in countries like Poland and in the U.S. state of Texas have tightened laws.

In the mountainous enclave of 33,000 people, women who end their pregnancies risk three years’ imprisonment. The term is twice as long for anyone who carries out their abortion.

As the campaign enters its final week emotions are running high between traditionalists and the referendum’s promoters, with hard-hitting posters on the medieval streets.

Vanessa Muratori, a member of the San Marino Women’s Union, believes the Sept. 26 plebiscite will crown a personal 18-year battle to give San Marino women the same rights as in Italy, where abortion has been legal since 1978.

“I care about my country and I want it to be civilized,” she says. “I feel like a link in a chain of women’s emancipation that goes beyond San Marino.”

Elsewhere in Europe, the Mediterranean island of Malta, and the micro-states of Andorra and the Vatican City, another Italian enclave, still ban abortion altogether.

Muratori set up a feminist association in 1994 and presented a bill to legalize abortion to San Marino’s legislative council in 2003. It received just two votes in favor and 16 against.

The experience brought home to her the extent of the religion-based resistance to change, and convinced her that a well prepared campaign was needed to win over her compatriots’ hearts and minds.

Success on Sunday will allow abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy and thereafter only in the case of the mother’s life being in danger or of grave malformation of the fetus.

SLOW PROGRESS

In Europe’s last referendum on abortion, the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar voted in June to ease what remain extremely strict curbs.

Ireland legalized abortion in a far higher-profile referendum in 2018, while this month the state of Texas went in the other direction, introducing a law that bans most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

Social progress has always been slow in San Marino.

Women did not get the right to vote until 1960, 14 years after surrounding Italy, and have only been allowed to hold political office since 1974. Divorce was legalized in 1986, some 16 years after Italy.

Nonetheless, Muratori’s Women’s Union, campaigning from a gazebo in a children’s playground near the Italian border, has made inroads into the conservative mentality, and gathered 3,000 signatures to launch the vote, three times more than required.

“From my point of view this referendum shouldn’t even be necessary, choosing whether to have a baby or not should be part of a woman’s human freedom,” said Anita Alvarez, a 20-year-old student.

The ‘No’ campaign is equally determined. Using the slogan “one of us,” its core message is that the unborn child should have the same rights as all San Marino citizens.

Marina Corsi, a pharmacist active with the ‘NO’ committee, said this principle should not be compromised even in cases of rape or the certainty of severe disability for the unborn baby.

“It is not the baby who is guilty in rape cases, it is the rapist who should be punished, not the child,” she said.

As things stand, San Marino women wanting an abortion normally go to Italy, where they can only get one privately, at a cost of around 1,500 euros ($1,766).

“Women are forced to seek healthcare …as criminals because they are rejected by their own state,” said Karen Pruccoli, a businesswoman who is a member of the ‘YES’ committee backing the referendum.

(Writing by Gavin Jones; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Italy makes COVID health pass mandatory for all workers

By Crispian Balmer and Giuseppe Fonte

ROME (Reuters) -The Italian government approved on Thursday some of the strictest anti-COVID measures in the world, making it obligatory for all workers either to show proof of vaccination, a negative test or recent recovery from infection.

The new rules will come into force on Oct. 15 in the latest effort by Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s broad coalition to persuade people to get inoculated and blunt contagion in one of the countries worst-hit by the virus.

Any worker who fails to present a valid health certificate will be suspended on no pay, but cannot be sacked, according to a draft of the decree seen by Reuters. The full details are due to be published later in the day.

People who ignore the decree and go to work regardless will face a fine of between 600 to 1,500 euros ($705-$1,175).

While some European Union states have ordered their health workers to get vaccines, none have made the Green Pass mandatory for all employees, making Italy a test case for the continent.

The pass was originally conceived to ease travel around Europe, but Italy was among a group of countries that swiftly also made it a requirement for those wanting to access venues such as museums, gyms and indoor dining in restaurants.

There have been sporadic protests in Italy in recent weeks against the growing pressure to get a jab, but most political parties as well as the main employers’ federation have backed the move, hoping it will prevent further economic lockdowns.

Union leaders have been more lukewarm, saying tests should be given freely to workers who refuse to be vaccinated, enabling them to remain on the job.

Officials say that would encourage people to continue shunning vaccines. However, a government source said the cabinet would keep a firm lid on prices for tests, imposing a maximum fee of 15 euros for adults.

VACCINES WORK

Italy has the second-highest COVID-19 death toll in Europe after Britain, with more than 130,000 people dying of the disease since the pandemic surfaced in early 2020.

Around 74% of its 60-million-strong population have had at least one COVID-19 shot and 68% are fully vaccinated, figures broadly in line with most other EU countries.

Underscoring the importance of jabs, Italy’s health foundation Gimbe said in a report on Thursday that almost all COVID-19 sufferers currently in hospital were unvaccinated.

The report said vaccines had helped reduce deaths in Italy by 96.3%, hospitalizations by 93.4% and intensive care admissions by 95.7%.

Italy in March ordered health workers to get vaccinated or face suspension. As of today, 728 doctors have been suspended, the doctors’ federation said on Thursday. It was not immediately clear how many nurses or carers had refused to comply.

A similar measure in France came into force on Wednesday. Health Minister Olivier Veran said on Thursday that around 3,000 health workers had been suspended for their failure to get vaccinated.

(Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Gavin Jones)

Wildfire breaks out east of Rome, locals evacuated

ROME (Reuters) – Locals were evacuated from small communities around 40 km (25 miles) east of Rome on Friday when a wildfire broke out as the Italian capital faced temperatures of around 37 degrees Celsius (99 Fahrenheit).

Swathes of southern Italy have been plagued by wildfires in recent weeks, with flames ravaging woodland in Calabria, in the toe of the Italian boot, and on the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.

Wednesday saw the temperature reach almost 49 Celsius in south-eastern Sicily, reported as the highest temperature ever recorded in Europe.

The heatwave is now moving north and overnight 25 families were evacuated from their homes as fires spread through the nature reserve of Monte Catillo, near the Rome suburb of Tivoli, firefighters said in a tweet.

Around 30 residents of a home for poor children and orphans were also evacuated to escape the flames.

Wildfires also broke out overnight near the town of Otranto, in Italy’s southern heel, firefighters said. A nearby seaside resort was evacuated due to the choking smoke and the coastal road heading south from Otranto was closed to traffic.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi on Thursday promised financial help for communities hit by the fires, and a plan of action to replant forest areas and make the Italian countryside more resilient to natural disasters.

(Reporting by Gavin Jones; Editing by Angelo Amante and David Holmes)

Italy makes COVID-19 health pass mandatory for teachers

By Gavin Jones and Giuseppe Fonte

ROME (Reuters) – The Italian government ruled on Thursday that teachers must have proof of immunity from COVID-19 before entering the classroom, and also made the so-called Green Pass mandatory for travelers on trains, planes, ships and inter-city coaches.

The Green Pass is a digital or paper certificate that shows if someone has received at least one jab, has tested negative or has recently recovered from the coronavirus.

Looking to speed up vaccinations to counter the highly contagious Delta variant, the government had already decreed that from Aug. 6 the pass would be required to eat indoors in restaurants and use an array of services and leisure activities.

On Thursday, despite misgivings in the ruling coalition and small street protests, Mario Draghi’s cabinet widened the Green Pass requirement to all teachers, university students and long-distance transport from Sept. 1.

“The choice of the government is to invest as much as possible in the Green Pass to avoid closures and to safeguard freedom,” Health Minister Roberto Speranza told reporters.

Teachers will not be able to work without the certificate and after five days of absence they will no longer be paid.

Italy is following in the footsteps of France, which was the first European country to say it was making proof of immunity mandatory to access a range of services and venues.

The move by President Emmanuel Macron triggered larger protests than those that have been seen in Italy. Opponents of the measures say they trample on freedoms, discriminate against the unvaccinated, and flout European Union rules.

On Thursday France’s top court ruled that the health pass did not contravene the constitution.

Italy reported 27 coronavirus-related deaths on Thursday against 21 the day before, the health ministry said, while the daily tally of new infections rose to 7,230 from 6,596.

The country has registered 128,163 COVID deaths since its outbreak emerged in February last year, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the eighth-highest in the world. It has seen 4.38 million cases to date.

In March, just a month after taking office, Draghi made it obligatory for health workers to be vaccinated.

A growing number of countries are seeking ways to convince reluctant sections of their populations to get COVID-19 jabs.

U.S. President Joe Biden said last week it will be compulsory for federal workers to get vaccinated or face regular testing, mask mandates and travel restrictions.

While France saw a surge in vaccinations following Macron’s announcement of the health pass requirement, the picture in Italy has been less clear.

The pace of inoculations actually slowed in the two weeks following Draghi’s July 22 announcement of the first Green Pass restrictions, but this may be due to the time lag between booking a jab and actually getting one, and to summer holidays.

“The vaccination hesitation among the over 50s persists,” Nino Cartabellotta, head of Italian public health think-tank GIMBE, told Reuters.

As of Aug. 4 some 65% of Italians had received at least one shot against COVID-19, of whom 54% were fully vaccinated. The figures are broadly in line with those of most European countries.

(Additional reporting by Giselda Vagnoni; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Nearly 600 rescued migrants disembark from charity boat in Italy

ROME (Reuters) – Hundreds of migrants rescued in the central Mediterranean disembarked on Friday in the southern Italian town of Augusta, in Sicily, after Rome-based maritime authorities agreed to give their ship a port.

The Ocean Viking vessel, operated by SOS Mediterranee, carried 572 people, including around 180 minors, after picking them up in six separate operations in Maltese and Libyan search and rescue areas, the European NGO said.

After asking the European Union to find a safe port for the migrants, the group said the situation onboard was deteriorating due to tension and exhaustion among those rescued.

“This news brings us relief and gives these people irrepressible joy,” said Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, referring to the Ocean Viking being able to dock.

SOS Mediterranee said all migrants would be tested for COVID-19 after disembarking the boat.

Migrant boat departures from North Africa towards Europe have picked up in 2021 after a decline in the previous few years and scores of people have died in recent weeks following shipwrecks as they tried to reach Italy.

Some 22,900 migrants have arrived in Italy since the beginning of the year – many of them fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa and the Middle East – compared with almost 7,700 in the same period last year, Interior Ministry data shows.

Several charity boats have been impounded in Italy in recent months after officials reported irregularities onboard.

Charity group MSF complained Italian authorities were using such inspections to prevent ships from returning to sea where many migrants die.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante in Rome; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Italy lifts COVID quarantine for EU, UK and Israel from Sunday

ROME (Reuters) -Italy will scrap mandatory quarantine from Sunday for visitors from the European Union, Britain and Israel who test negative for COVID-19, the government said on Friday as it looks to give summer tourism a boost.

With vaccine roll-outs picking up pace in the EU, more countries are looking to ease travel curbs and restrictions on the hospitality sector to help it recover from the pandemic.

“We have been waiting for this move for a long time and it anticipates a Europe-wide travel pass,” Tourism Minister Massimo Garavaglia.

The EU plans to start a unified system recording COVID-19 vaccinations, tests and recovery from June to allow more movement.

People entering Italy from these countries have so far been requested to quarantine for five days and test both before arrival as well as at the end of their isolation period.

Quarantine for other countries, including the United States, is longer.

Entry restrictions on those coming from Brazil will remain in place, the health ministry said.

The government also extended the so-called COVID-tested flights to cover some destinations in Canada, Japan and the United Arab Emirates. There will be no quarantine for those who test negative upon arrival on these routes, as well as on certain flights to Rome, Milan, Naples and Venice.

Although asked to supply a negative swab before travelling, passengers of these flights will be tested upon arrival and, if negative, exempted from quarantine.

Travel between Italy and much the rest of the world has been severely restricted for months as the government sought to contain resurgent coronavirus infections.

However, cases have declined steadily in recent weeks thanks in part to an increasingly effective vaccination campaign.

The national health institute (ISS) said on Friday the “R” reproduction number had fallen to 0.86 from 0.89 a week earlier. An “R” rate above 1 indicates that infections will grow exponentially.

Italy has recorded nearly 124,000 deaths due to coronavirus, the second-highest number in Europe after Britain. As of Monday, 19 of Italy’s 20 regions will be designated as “low-infection” zones and only one as a “medium-risk” one.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government is also due to discuss on Monday easing or abolishing Italy’s nationwide 10 p.m. curfew.

(Reporting by Maria Pia Quaglia and Angelo Amante, editing by Giulia Segreti and Gabriela Baczynska)

Come visit Italy, Draghi says after G20 tourism meeting

By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) – Prime Minister Mario Draghi urged foreigners on Tuesday to book their summer holidays in Italy, saying it was set to introduce travel passes from the middle of May, sooner than much of the rest of Europe.

Speaking after a meeting of tourism ministers from the Group of 20 wealthy nations, Draghi said it was important to provide clear, simple rules to ensure that tourists can once again travel freely in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

He said the European Union would introduce a health pass by the middle of June, allowing easy travel across the continent for those who had been vaccinated, had just tested negative or could prove they had recently recovered from COVID-19.

But he said Italy, which generates some 13% of its economic output from tourism, would have its own green pass ready by the middle of this month.

“Let us not wait until mid-June for the EU pass,” Draghi said. “In mid-May tourists can have the Italian pass … so the time has come to book your holidays in Italy,” he added.

Travel between Italian regions has been strictly restricted for much of the year to fight the virus. But with case numbers falling, the government hopes to attract visitors over the summer with so-called vaccine passports.

Italy is the president of the G20 this year and chaired Tuesday’s meeting of tourism ministers, who looked at ways of recovering from the damage wrought by the coronavirus.

International tourist arrivals dropped 73% globally in 2020 and nearly 62 million travel and tourism jobs have been lost globally as a result of the pandemic, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

The G20 ministers said in a communique that “the resumption of travel and tourism was crucial for global economic recovery.” They said the health crisis had presented an “opportunity to rethink tourism” and put it on a sustainable footing.

Their statement did not refer specifically to vaccine passports, but said ministers wanted to support and coordinate “safe international mobility initiatives.”

Countries around the world are looking at ways for people to show they have had vaccinations to allow them to travel freely. However, airports, border agencies and airlines fear there will be no clear global standard.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer, editing by Gavin Jones and Giles Elgood)

Italy eases COVID-19 curbs as infections decline, but deaths still high

ROME (Reuters) – Lockdown measures will be eased from Monday in six Italian regions, the health ministry ruled on Friday, even as the nationwide daily death toll remains well above 400.

New infections have fallen by 30% over the last five days compared with the same period last week, and the national health institute (ISS) said the “R” reproduction number has declined to 0.92 from 0.98 a week earlier. An “R” number above 1 indicates that infection numbers will grow at an exponential rate.

Italy operates a four-tier, color-coded system to calibrate the restrictions in place in its 20 regions.

Much of the industrial north worst-affected by the epidemic will be lowered from the highest-tier red, where people can only leave their homes for work, health reasons or emergencies, to tier-three orange, where restrictions on business and movement are slightly less severe.

This includes Lombardy, around the financial capital Milan, and Piedmont centered on Turin. Central Tuscany also passes from red to orange, while the island of Sardinia is the only region to move from orange to red.

A month ago Sardinia was the only region to be on the lowest-tier white, meaning daily life was almost as normal, underscoring the speed with which infections can accelerate in the absence of curbs.

Overall, from Monday there will be 16 orange regions and four red ones, with none in the two lower tiers, yellow and white.

The health system remains under acute strain and intensive care unit occupancy is still above the critical threshold, the ISS said, and daily deaths continue to pile up.

Friday saw the tally rise by 718, the largest increase this year, although the health minister said this figure was bloated by late reporting from the island of Sicily which had failed to register 258 deaths from “previous months.”

Italy has so far recorded 113,579 COVID-linked fatalities, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the seventh-highest in the world.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante, editing by Gavin Jones and Hugh Lawson)

Italy’s old pay high price for regional vaccine lottery

By Crispian Balmer and Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) – Agostino Airaudo, 86, died of the coronavirus on March 21. Ninety minutes earlier he had received an SMS telling him that, after weeks of waiting, he had got an appointment for a vaccine.

Ten days later, his 82-year-old wife Michela also died of the disease.

Unlike many other European countries, Italy did not give automatic precedence to its army of pensioners when it launched its inoculation campaign in December, even though they were bearing the brunt of the disease.

The failure to provide swifter protection has cost thousands of lives, experts say, and stoked anger about a fragmented health system under which regions take most of the decisions and the central government has struggled to impose a clear strategy.

“People could have been saved,” said Giorgio Airaudo, the son of Agostino and Michela, and the head of Italy’s powerful FIOM metalworkers’ union in the northern region of Piedmont.

“As soon as the vaccines arrived, there was no justification for not giving priority to fragile people and the elderly…,” he told Reuters by telephone.

“But this did not happen. The government made suggestions and each region did as they pleased.”

More than 110,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Italy, the world’s seventh highest tally. Their average age was 81, and 86% of them were 70 or over, data from the ISS national health institute shows.

Many countries, including Britain and the United States, vaccinated old people first, recognizing their great vulnerability.

Italy’s government also said the over 80’s should get priority, but a haphazard rollout has allowed professionals including lawyers, magistrates and university professors to move to the head of the queue in many places.

As the death rate has fallen in much of Europe thanks to the early impact of the vaccines, Italy’s has stayed stubbornly high, and its average daily toll of 431 during the past week was the highest on the continent, according to Reuters data.

Acknowledging the problem, Prime Minister Mario Draghi – the epitome of measured calm during his eight-year stint as head of the European Central Bank – on Thursday made an impassioned plea to fellow Italians to wait their turn.

“With what conscience does someone jump the line knowing that they are leaving a person who is over 75 or fragile exposed to the real risk of dying?” Draghi told reporters.

“Stop vaccinating people under 60,” he said, raising his voice.

‘DEATH, PAIN AND GRIEF’

At the start of this year, Italy’s 20 regions focused almost exclusively on protecting health workers, even those in their 20s with no contact with patients. Most places did not begin mass vaccinations for over 80’s until mid-February.

By that stage, France and Germany had already given a first dose to 20% of their over 80s.

Italy has since caught up with the EU average, with data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control showing it had given at least one shot to 62% of its over 80’s. But just 13.4% of people in their 70’s have had a first dose, the lowest rate in Europe after Bulgaria.

Regional governors say they followed government guidelines and blame delays on slower-than-expected vaccine deliveries.

They also say they were blindsided in January when the national drug regulator advised that the AstraZeneca/Oxford shot should only be used for the under 55’s.

They had planned to give this shot to older residents and had to change strategy. Now guidance has swung round again with a recommendation that it should be used only for over-60s after concern emerged that it may cause rare blood clots in young adults.

Matteo Villa, a researcher with the ISPI think-tank, says other EU nations facing the same issues were more agile. His analysis suggests Italy could have saved 11,900 lives had it focused more on the elderly.

“Central government did not control the situation and then, amazingly, many of the regions did not prepare carefully for the rollout,” Villa told Reuters.

He said some regions competed with each other to see who could administer the most shots, and found it easier to corral health workers than the elderly.

“This isn’t a race …This is a situation where there is death, pain and grief,” said the union boss Airaudo.

His parents lived in Piedmont, which is centered on Turin. They both had serious ailments and had registered with their doctor for the vaccine. An algorithm adopted by the region decides who gets a vaccine, and when.

Piedmont health officials did not respond to questions over why they had not received timely shots.

‘AN INCREDIBLE MESS’

Adding to the confusion, each region uses its own booking system.

Franco Perco, 81, lives in the central Marche region, a COVID-19 hotspot. He is still waiting for a vaccine appointment despite numerous phone calls to helplines and efforts to book online.

“I feel very scared. There is no clarity,” said Perco, the former head of one of Italy’s major national parks. “I am going out as little as possible.”

Under the constitution, Italian regions have broad autonomy over healthcare decision-making, even during a pandemic.

In Tuscany, Abruzzo and Sicily, magistrates and lawyers were given priority status. In the southern region of Molise, journalists were allowed early vaccinations. Lax supervision in Sicily meant one priest was able to get his congregation vaccinated regardless of age.

“It created an incredible mess. It has served as a lesson for us to be more careful,” said Angelo Aliquò, the health agency director general in the Sicilian city of Ragusa.

Health undersecretary Andrea Costa, who took office in February, told Reuters that mistakes had been made in not clearly identifying priority groups.

“There will be time in the future to analyze what happened, but now we need to achieve as soon as possible immunization which will allow a return to normal life,” he said.

Angered by the sudden death of both his parents, Airaudo hopes there will be a reckoning.

“I always thought that decentralization was about being close to the people. Instead, today we have confusion, difference, injustice and delays,” he said.

Italy arrests navy captain for spying, expels Russian diplomats

By Crispian Balmer and Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) – Italy expelled two Russian diplomats on Wednesday after police said they had caught an Italian navy captain passing secret documents to a Russian military official in return for money.

The Italian captain and the Russian embassy staff member were arrested in a car park in Rome and accused of “serious crimes tied to spying and state security” after their meeting on Tuesday night, Italian Carabinieri police said.

The suspects were not officially identified. A police source said the captain was called Walter Biot and had accepted 5,000 euros ($5,900) in return for the information.

It was not immediately possible to contact Biot, who was in custody, and the name of his lawyer was not disclosed.

Ansa news agency said NATO documents were among the files that the Italian had handed over, raising potential security worries for other members of the Western military alliance.

Italy immediately summoned the Russian ambassador Sergey Razov and expelled two Russian officials believed to be involved in what Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio called an “extremely grave matter”.

Biot, 54, had the rank of a frigate captain but was working at the defense ministry department tasked with developing national security policy and managing part of the relations with Italy’s allies, a ministry source told Reuters.

Previously, he had worked at the ministry’s external relations unit. His name and picture appear in the book of contacts for Italy’s 2014 European Union presidency.

“The accusation of espionage against Italian and Russian officers shows that we must continue to work closely with Europe and our allies to constantly improve our means of protecting the safety and well-being of our citizens,” Di Maio said.

Russian news agencies, citing the Russian embassy in Italy, said the pair who were expelled worked in the military attaché’s office. Officials did not say whether the Russian army official who had met the captain was one of those ordered to leave.

Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted a Russian lawmaker as saying Moscow would reciprocate for the expulsions, standard practice in such cases.

However, statements from Moscow suggested Russia was keen to play down the incident. The Russian foreign ministry was quoted as saying that it regretted the expulsions, but that they did not threaten bilateral relations.

Earlier, the Kremlin said it did not have information about the circumstances of the case but hoped the two countries would maintain positive and constructive ties.

The incident was the latest in a series of spying accusations in recent months against Russians in European countries. Bulgaria expelled Russian officials on suspicion of spying in March, and the Netherlands did so in December.

Tuesday’s arrests were ordered by prosecutors following a long investigation carried out by the Italian intelligence with the support of the military, the police said.

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