Europe has caught up to the U.S. on coronavirus vaccinations — and is deploying near-mandates to get further

 It wasn’t quite a mandate, but the announcement landed with nearly the same power.

After Italy said last week that its coronavirus health passport would be required to go to the movies or dine indoors, daily bookings for inoculations soared. A new kind of patient started arriving at vaccination centers: people who had been wavering or reluctant. In one waiting room in Rome, Federica Puccetti, 19, said she still didn’t want the shot. But she had plans to go to the island of Sardinia. Inoculation had become the path to a normal vacation.

“Otherwise, you can’t do much of anything,” Puccetti said, and then a volunteer told her it was her turn.

In making its health pass a de facto ticket to daily social life, Italy has become representative of the new pressure tactics being deployed in several major European countries at a crucial stage of the pandemic.

Though the European Union vaccination campaign got off to an embarrassingly slow start, after seven months the bloc is in essentially the same position as the United States, with some 50 percent of the population fully vaccinated, and nearly 60 percent having received at least one dose.

That means hundreds of millions of people have significant protection against severe sickness and hospitalization. But countries also stand well shy of their goals, which include not just protecting people individually, but also vaccinating enough people that the virus cannot easily wreak havoc within communities. Success now hinges on convincing, or coercing, holdouts.

In country after country, some version of the same debate is unfolding about whether vaccination can and should be mandated for participation in workplaces, schools and social settings. Though only months ago the idea of such requirements seemed politically untenable, leaders have been rapidly reassessing, as the highly contagious delta variant spreads and some hospitals — in areas with low vaccination rates — are pushed back to the brink.

The Biden administration on Thursday announced mandate-like guidelines for the millions who work in the federal government, requiring them to be vaccinated or undergo repeated testing. Some U.S. states and major employers have passed rules for their workers.

“It’s still a question whether the federal government can mandate the whole country,” Biden said. “I don’t know that yet.”

A man shows his health pass at a coffee shop in Benerville-sur-Mer, France, on July 27. (Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP/Getty Images)

In several major European countries, the answer to that question has been yes. France, Greece and Italy are requiring people to show their covid passports to go to restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and other places where people gather. And Britain said people will need to show documentation to enter nightclubs and other crowded venues starting in September. British officials suggested they were less concerned about enforcement than about motivating people to get vaccinated.

 

The rules stop short of being mandates, in that people can alternatively show proof of antibodies or a recent negative coronavirus test. The impracticalities, though, would mount: In Italy, an unvaccinated gymgoer, for instance, would need to get tested every two days to do regular workouts.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi pitched the decision as a way to protect the country and reduce the chance of needing further restrictions. The policy also amounts to a test of how readily unvaccinated people might be persuaded when faced with the prospect of having second-tier privileges.

“Without a vaccine,” Puccetti said, “you’re marginalized.”

Western Europe, like the United States, has a strong strain of vaccine skepticism, but acceptance of coronavirus vaccines had already been rising faster among Europeans than Americans. In Italy, though there are blocks of coronavirus vaccine skepticism on both the left and far right, polls conducted before and after the new policy announcement suggest the group is small: Only 8 percent of the country is vehemently opposed, according to one recent survey. Another 7 percent describe themselves as undecided.

It is with that group — the undecideds — where inducements may hold the most sway.

At a vaccination center in Rome this past week, several people who had booked their first shots described themselves as having been on the fence, citing common reasons: Fear about potential long-term side effects that wouldn’t have been evident in vaccine trials. Uncertainty stemming from the speed at which vaccines were authorized. Confusion about the messaging from politicians, from news outlets and on social media. There were anecdotal stories about people who had been vaccinated and got sick anyway. Several mentioned seeing videos of people sticking magnets and coins to their shoulders after being inoculated, purported evidence that the vaccines contained traces of metal.

“They don’t want to be guinea pigs,” said Fabio Picchiarelli, a doctor at the vaccination center, summarizing the sentiment he had seen. He said he has on occasion tried to convince people, simply by showing them official information. Out of curiosity, he said, he had Googled the term “covid vax,” and was concerned about the amount of false information he saw.