PARIS, France: Large scale protests have erupted against Covid restriction in France and Italy as the authorities have decided to implement stricter measures requiring people to show a health pass from Monday to be allowed to return to their routine activities including intercity travel.
French President Emmanuel Macron has championed the so-called Covid-19 pass, which is now being extended to cafés, restaurants and air and train travel, as a way to curb a fourth wave of the coronavirus and encourage people to get vaccinated.
But the plan has led to four weekends of angry protests with almost a quarter of a million people taking to the streets across the country on Saturday.
The health pass is generated in a QR code either by a full course of vaccinations, a recent negative virus test or a recovery from Covid-19. The government expects a one-week grace period for consumers and businesses to get used to the new rules.
“The pass and the vaccination drive should help us avoid new curfews and lockdowns,” Health Minister Olivier Veran told Le Parisien daily.
The pass was first introduced on July 21 for visits to cultural venues such as museums and theatres, as well as sports games.
Veran announced slight modifications in the rules – notably that tests could be 72 hours old and not 48 and also that self-tests carried out under medical supervision would be allowed.
But he emphasised there would be no going back on rules which will remain in place until at least November, lamenting the attention paid to those who are “anti-vax, anti-science and anti-state” over those who respected distancing and had been vaccinated.
“I am willing to hear the fears, do everything to reassure. But there comes a time when enough is enough,” he said.
Opponents argue the new rules encroach on civil liberties in a country where individual freedom is prized.
About 237,000 people protested across France on Saturday, including 17,000 in Paris, the interior ministry said, exceeding the 204,000 recorded the previous weekend – numbers that are extremely unusual for protests at the height of the country’s summer break.
Recent polls, however, have shown that a clear majority of French back the pass, including the extension to cafés and restaurants.
France’s Constitutional Council approved the plan on Thursday.
It will be needed in the indoor and outdoor areas of restaurants but will not be required on metro systems and suburban transport.
The numbers in hospitals are still well below previous highs seen in the pandemic but there were 1,510 people in intensive care with Covid-19 on Saturday compared with 1,099 just one week ago.
Macron hopes the plan will further accelerate the vaccination drive in France where more than 55% are now double-jabbed.
Aides have noted that almost seven million new bookings were made for first jabs since the plans were outlined.
Cases have been rising fastest in Corsica and the Mediterranean coast, which are seeing a summer influx of holidaymakers.
But the biggest concern is over France’s overseas territories in the Indian Ocean and Caribbean, where new lockdowns have been ordered amid a slow vaccine uptake.
Macron, who faces re-election next year, has in recent days repeatedly taken to the social media platform TikTok, popular among young people, to get his message across.
“Get vaccinated. Get vaccinated. Get vaccinated,” Macron said in the latest video on Friday.
“It’s a question of being a good citizen … our freedom is worth nothing if we infect our friends, neighbours or grandparents. To be free is to be responsible.”
Italy also saw thousands turn out against the implementation of the country’s Green Pass, which is now required for teachers and for people to attend indoor events.
News agency ANSA reported that “thousands” marched in the city of Milan at an unauthorized protest.
Some within the anti-vaccine movement wore widely condemned yellow star badges reading “not vaccinated,” resembling those that Jewish people were forced to wear by the Nazis.
Another 1,500 people gathered in Rome, posters reading: “No Green Pass!” while in Naples, around 100 anti-vax protesters demonstrated against vaccinations for children.
Italy has overseen a successful vaccination campaign, with over 63% of the population older than 12 are fully vaccinated.