It was June when I last did this, when I last told of my nightly ritual of checking that day’s Covid-19 stats and, by that stage, daily vaccination numbers as well. And it was in June too that, with each set of data going unequivocally in the right direction (down to c.1000 new cases per day and up to over 500,000 jabs per day), the whole country moved, region by region, from the yellow zone into the white zone. In this long-awaited promised land, there was no more night-time curfew, no more restrictions on movement and gatherings, and all attractions and amenities (with the exception of discos and nightclubs) could open fully. Only mask wearing in public indoor settings, social distancing rules and capacity restrictions remained in place, and the ‘Green Pass’ was introduced. This digital or paper certificate provides proof that the holder has either been vaccinated, has recovered from Covid-19, or has tested negative in the preceding 48 hours and was originally designed to facilitate travel and to allow people to attend large gatherings including weddings and sports events. With the Delta variant casting an ever longer shadow, though, caution was the order of the day and every step forward was heavily circumscribed with caveats, making it clear that this was not a one-way street. The law that introduced Green Pass also enabled it to be extended to other areas of activity if necessary, and the system of yellow, orange and red zones introduced back in November was retained, albeit with some tweaks to the threshold criteria to reflect the characteristics of the new dominant variant. To move from white to yellow, for instance, a region would now simultaneously need to exceed 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitant and have over 15% of normal beds and over 10% of ICU beds occupied by Covid-19 patients.
All this was a far cry from the same period last year. After three months in almost total lockdown, case numbers had tumbled to the low hundreds per day by mid-summer, by which time there were only about sixty people in intensive care nationally and daily fatalities were in the teens. Consequently – and while I have little doubt that the decision was made in good faith on the best information available at the time, it now seems over-optimistic at the very least, if not borderline reckless – many restrictions were abandoned and pretty much everything was able to re-open in some form or another, albeit with basic safety protocols still in place. The sun shone, the sea was warm, the beaches full, restaurants busy, and families and friends gathered. But everyone was just a little bit too de-mob happy and the nation lowered its guard, seemingly in the naïve belief that this nightmare was over. At that stage, moreover, there was no real framework in place for reimposing restrictions and vaccines were still awaiting approval. In retrospect, the resulting surge in cases going into the autumn was inevitable, as was the rapid introduction of a whole new raft of measures (principally the 3-tiered traffic light system) aimed at halting the disease’s spread and, politically more importantly, avoiding another national lockdown.
And now, a year on from the start of that huge second wave which peaked at 40,000 cases per day and the two further but successively smaller waves that followed, we are still not yet quite back down to where we were at the end of last summer. In terms of simple numbers at least: since the latest surge in July and August, daily cases have fallen from a peak of around 8000 to just under 3000 this week, hospitalisations have halved to about 2700 and daily fatalities have dropped from the mid-70s to the low 30s, although with the Delta variant these had risen much more slowly than in previous waves. Critically, however, thanks to 73% of the total population having now been fully vaccinated (including over 60% of 12-19-year-olds), the trajectory this October is unambiguously downwards. The scope of the Green Pass has also been extended to include most public indoor amenities and activities, and from mid-October it will become obligatory for all employees in the both public and private sectors, although for now only until the end of the year when the State of Emergency from which such measures are derived is currently due to lapse. There has been some vigorous resistance to this extension, with it being seen by civil liberties groups as compulsory vaccination by the back door in light of the inconvenience and cost (at €15 a time) of getting tested (soon to be every 72 hours) if you haven’t been jabbed, or if you refuse to get a Green Pass at all, face being suspended from work without pay. But although the government has not ruled out compulsory vaccination by the front door, the ‘nudge’ effect of the policy appears to be working: vaccination rates, which dropped back significantly over the holiday period, have picked back up again to around 180,000 per day. As a result, and just 10 days late, the country has now hit the target it set back in March of inoculating 80% of the ‘vaccinatable’ population (ie over-12s) by the end of September: as of this morning, this figure stood at 80.04%.
So on the back of the hard-learned wisdom gained from the false dawn of a year ago, there are encouraging signs that this autumn and winter could be a lot less worrisome than last year.
Note: at the time of writing, Le Marche has vaccinated just shy of 78% of its eligible population, has an infection rate of 29 per 100k inhabitants, while 6% of both ICU and of non-ICU beds are occupied by Covid-19 patients.