ATHENS – After vowing there would be no delays in requiring health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be suspended without pay, Greece's New Democracy government relented to protests and put it on hold.
Almost 22,000 workers in the health sector, including doctors and hospital workers, have refused to be inoculated despite being on the front lines of fighting the pandemic. Some 6,000 were suspended before that was reversed.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who earlier said he couldn't force them, then ordered mandatory shots for the workers with those refusing to be suspended Sept. 2 if they didn't.
But after demonstrations against the measure, the New Democracy government backed away and said unvaccinated workers could stay on the job – if they moved to get the first of two required shots of most versions.
They would also have to get the second weeks or months later, depending on he version, or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson version but it wasn't said what the deadline is for the first or whether the government would allow further delays.
With a resurgence of the pandemic on the back of the especially contagious and deadly Delta Variant from India, the government is losing ground to stop it, with only about 61 percent of the population of 10.7 million fully vaccinated.
Health officials said at least 70 percent is the benchmark to slow the pandemic which has spread further between Delta, anti-vaxxers and people not wearing masks or staying away from each other, violating what's left of restrictions.
The news agency Reuters reported that the government had given in to the protesters and anti-vaxxers in the health care sector – for now – but it's unclear when those refusing would have to get their first shot.
Hundreds of those workers staged a five-hour work stoppage Sept. 2 and took to the streets in Athens and other Greek cities for a second time in less than a month to protest against the new rule.
They don't believe the vaccines which have worked to save lives and keep people out of hospitals – and alive – are safe or effective or that they are part of an inernational conspiracy to alter their DNA or control their minds.
A labor union official for hospital workers POEDIN said that a total of 10,000 unvaccinated staff could be suspended and that it would disrupt operations in hospitals just as the pandemic is rising – jumping largely because of them and others refusing shots, perpetuating a vicious cycle.
“We have worked so hard during the pandemic and this is what we get,” said protester Anna Haritou, who worked as a midwife at an Athens hospital until she was suspended.
The government said legislation would be amended to allow workers to be removed from suspension and get back to their jobs immediately as long as they got the first dose in the coming days. A key condition is that they conclude their vaccination, the report added.
“Mandatory vaccination for the workers of the NHS (National Health System) was legislated to help safeguarding public health,” new Health Minister Thanos Plevris said.
“Since we do not intend to punish (people), we will introduce an amendment,” he said, and then did. Some workers in the psychology and psychiatry sector complained they were told they had a 15-day delay only to find they were suspended on the ministry's orders before that was changed too.
About 90 percent of the health care workers are vaccinated but they are the only ones so far being forced to take the shots although little more than half the police force is inoculated and the vaccine isn't obligatory even tourism workers, including on islands where the pandemic spread.
Some 400 health care workers, accompanied by ambulances with sirens blaring, marched through central Athens against the measures that required vaccinations or proof of recovery from the Coronavirus to stay on the job.
The protesters say they are not against vaccinations, but object to making them compulsory, and say the measure will lead to staff shortages.
The government said the measures, which were to apply to all health care workers in the private and public sector as well as to workers in care homes for the elderly, were necessary to protect the most vulnerable amid a third surge of COVID-19 infections in the country.
“The overwhelming majority of health care workers have not only been vaccinated, but fought a battle for the vaccination of the public,” the ministry said. “The law is being implemented for the few unvaccinated who are endangering the lives of people who turn to the health care system.”
Hospitalizations are starting to put pressure on the health system. Greece has seen a total of over 590,000 confirmed cases and more than 13,700 deaths and the numbers in public hospital Intensive Care Units (ICUs) is jumping.
The government has introduced a series of restrictions on those who aren't vaccinated, including requiring weekly tests for workers and limiting access to certain entertainment venues to those who are fully vaccinated or recently recovered, as an incentive to boost vaccinations but it hasn't worked.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)