Health Minister Kikilias Announces New Measures against Covid-19. (Eurokinissi/ Giorgos Kontarinis)
ATHENS – Stopping short of requiring everyone to be vaccinated despite the Delta Variant-driven dangerous resurgence of COVID-19, Greece's New Democracy government has set out a range of restrictions for those refusing.
Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias, who repeated that health care workers who won't be inoculated will start being suspended Sept. 1 – nursing home staff already have – said the move was made because of rising hospitalizations.
More than 90 percent of patients in public hospital Intensive Care Units (ICUs) that are at 67 percent capacity and rising are unvaccinated and only half the country's population of 10.7 million is fully vaccinated.
That falls far short of the 70 percent that health authorities said is needed to beat back the 18-month pandemic, although one member of the government's advisory panel of doctors and scientists said it should be 80-85 percent.
From Sept. 13 until March 31, 2022, he said all private and public sector workers without a vaccination certificate or proof of recovery from COVID-19 within the last six months will have to undergo one rapid test per week.
Two tests per week will be required for those working in academia, tourism, restaurants, cafes, bars, and in television, movie, theater and musical productions, but at their own cost at 10 euros ($11.74) each time, no longer free.
He said indoor restaurants, cafes, bars, clubs and entertainment venues can allow only the vaccinated or recently recovered, with checks conducted at the entrance through an app that scans certificates to verify them.
Masks will be mandatory for all, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, in indoor public areas and in crowded outdoor areas, a measure already largely ignored or defied during an essentially-ended previously lenient lockdown.
The rules also apply in private and public sector offices and businesses where regular testing will be required once weekly, while in schools and universities, tourism, catering, TV and theater – they will have to take two rapid tests weekly.
University students who aren't vaccinated will also have to take two rapid tests a week – paying for them pocket – while school pupils will also have to be tested twice a week, though using self-testing kits proved free, said Kathimerini.
The results of all tests must be posted on the relevant government website, with proof of a negative result being printed out and produced for admission. Those testing positive will be given instructions for further testing and self-isolation.
SHOW THEM THE PROOF
Admission to cafes, restaurants, clubs and sports venues will not be allowed without proof of vaccination, while those going to cinemas, theaters, museums and gyms without an immunity certificate will have to display a negative PCR test taken up to 48 hours earlier to gain admission, the minister said.
“These measures are not punitive. They are our duty to all those who went through 18 months of the pandemic carefully, those who lost their shops, jobs, had to work from home to protect themselves,” Kikilias said.
The new rules also give employers the right to demand proof of vaccination from employees working in close quarters with other members of staff as the government tries to persuade – or force – anti-vaxxers to be inoculated.
Masks will be mandatory in all indoor public settings and in crowded outdoor areas, while free tests at public facilities will be limited only to people who have already been vaccinated or displaying clear symptoms of COVID-19.
The restrictions were less severe than anticipated after government spokesman Yiannis Oikonomou earlier said the government wants to ensure a return to a certain normality, regardless of how many people remain unvaccinated.
“Society cannot wait and, above all, cannot remain hostage to such perceptions,” he said then, adding that the measures would be aimed at “ensuring the full operation of public life, in private and public areas where gatherings will be observed.”
“We will not allow anyone to hinder the person who wants to work, to create, the young people who want to be educated, to study. It is our duty to ensure, as far as possible, the return to a fullness of life as soon as possible,” he said.
There's already been blowback from refuseniks, with the union representing Greek public hospital staff striking for four hours and rallying in the center of the capital to protest mandatory shots for their sector.
The union POEDIN called on its vaccinated members not to submit their immunity certificates to the authorities to prevent the creation of a register showing which healthcare workers have been vaccinated, although that means they would be suspended without pay as well as those refusing shots.
POEDIN said required shots for health workers will lead to staff shortages although only about 10 percent of the members have refused so far, with more being inoculated after it was announced they otherwise would be suspended.
Employees of the EKAV ambulance service held a protest rally in Thessaloniki against the suspension of unvaccinated colleagues that's coming with the head of the workers’ union for Central Macedonia, Prodromos Devletoglou, saying 170 of 592 of them aren't vaccinated.
He said 120 are active crews and rescuers, which means that only 16 out of the 24 ambulances will operate in Thessaloniki and throughout the prefecture if unvaccinated staff is suspended, said Kathimerini.
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