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Italy set a new bar Friday for major Western democracies seeking to move beyond the pandemic by putting in place a sweeping law that requires the nation’s entire workforce — public and private — to have government-issued health passes.

The measure requires workers to show proof of vaccination, a negative rapid swab test or recent recovery from COVID-19 before returning to offices, schools, hospitals or other work places.

Under the new rules, those who do not have a Green Pass, as Italy’s health pass is called, must take unpaid leave. Employers will be responsible for verifying the certificates, for the most part a cellphone app. Workers risk fines of up to 1,500 euros ($1,760) for not complying.


The law goes further than those in other European countries or the United States in pushing vaccination mandates, which have become central — and hotly contested — parts of government strategies to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

With the step, Italy — the first democracy to have quarantined towns and applied national lockdowns — is again first across a new threshold, making clear that it is willing to use the enormous leverage of the state to try to curb the pandemic and get its economy moving.

President Joe Biden has appealed to private companies to mandate coronavirus vaccinations for employees, asking them to take initiative as an effort he announced in September to require 80 million U.S. workers to get the shot undergoes a lengthy rule-making process.

China, where more than 1 billion people are now fully vaccinated, has no qualms about pushing a more forceful stance on vaccines. In August, authorities in at least 12 Chinese cities warned residents that unvaccinated people could be punished if they are found to be responsible for spreading outbreaks.

Democratically elected governments, however, must balance public health needs with civil liberty concerns and political realities. For many Western governments, that has resulted in refraining from national mandates while seeking other ways to encourage, coax and even mildly coerce people to get vaccinated.


In Italy, where more than 80% of people older than 12 are now fully vaccinated against COVID, the sweeping national mandate has stirred protests among hard-core holdouts. Some workers, including at the a major port in Trieste, did not report for work Friday.

But the measure has faced no serious legal challenge, and Prime Minister Mario Draghi and his government say they are confident that the courts will not delay or reverse the law.

Italy has now taken the boldest position in Europe. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has tried to make life uncomfortable for unvaccinated people, requiring a health pass to enter restaurants and for long-distance train travel, for instance, but has mandated vaccines only for some essential workers.

Italy earlier put in place tough requirements for health workers and teachers, significantly increasing vaccination rates in those categories. But to reach the most reluctant unvaccinated workers — an estimated 3.5 million people — the government has now taken one of the Western world’s hardest lines.

Government officials say that the measure is already working, and that more than 500,000 previously reluctant people — much higher than expected — have gotten inoculated since the government announced its plan last month.

Italians have largely embraced the Green Pass, as they have rules about wearing masks on public transit and other closed public spaces, as a small sacrifice for a return to normalcy. But a small population of eligible people remain unvaccinated — a mix of vaccine skeptics, conspiracy theorists and other anti-establishment types.


“There are still 50 deaths a day,” said Col. Mario Renna, a spokesman for the Italian army general in charge of Italy’s vaccination effort. “We want to get to zero.”