There are three religious public holidays in Italy that do not exist in Protestant countries such as the UK. One is Epiphany on 6th January, another is the Feast of the Assumption on 15th August, and the third is on 8th December, which is the feast day of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. Officially, the Immaculate Conception is one of Catholicism’s four Marian dogmas (ie it was divinely revealed) and states that Mary was born free of original sin by virtue of her role as the Mother of God. Semi-officially, however, it is also the day in Italy that signals the start of Christmas and so is the day on which people traditionally dig out their Santa hats, untangle their fairy lights and put their Christmas trees up. And although it has been another year in which celebrations and festivities have been pretty thin on the ground, the air of grim defiance that characterised the date last year has this year given way to a mood of guarded cheerfulness, with people filling their trolleys with extra-sparkly baubles, angels and stars, extra-abundant wreaths and garlands and super-size trees. It is as if there is a collective urge to celebrate how much more ‘normal’ this Christmas will feel compared to last year’s, which, with its brave faces and forced jollity, was a lonely, tense and joyless occasion.
At the start of last year’s festive season, the second – and worst – wave was at its peak (of around 40,000 new cases per day and around 800,000 cases in total). Schools were closed, leisure and entertainment venues were closed, bars and restaurants were closed in the evenings, shopping centres were closed at weekends, little movement between regions was permitted, and there was a night-time curfew in place. On top of this, the government had already warned everyone that the entire country would go back into full lockdown and that the curfew would actually tighten for almost the whole of the Christmas and New Year period – to the extent that the Pope would even have to bring forward his ‘Midnight’ Mass by a couple of hours. And, of course, the vaccine programme wasn’t even in the starting blocks.
A year on and things look and feel quite different. Yes, there has been a worrying surge in cases which currently stand at about 20,000 per day. Yes, a small number of cases of the Omicron variant have been identified here. Yes, masks in public indoor locations and on public transport remain obligatory. And yes, the state of emergency is technically still in place, along with the framework of white public, yellow, orange and red zones whereby restrictions in a given region can be tightened should conditions require it. However, there are currently no plans for a nationwide tightening of restrictions over Christmas and New Year and (for the time being, at least) the country is pretty much open for business – as well as learning, socialising and shopping – as usual.
Well, it is for the vast majority of people – that is to say, for the 46 million or so who have participated in the country’s highly successful vaccination programme that has so far inoculated 85% of the over-12s (which equates to just shy of 78% of the total population). Over a quarter of those currently eligible have also had their third dose (Mr Blue-Shirt and me included, incidentally) and the vaccination of 5-11-year-olds is expected to start within the next few days.
For the minority of people who have not so far been vaccinated, however, things will not be quite so easy as a result of changes to the Green Pass, the Covid passport that was introduced back in June. This is the digital or paper certificate that provides proof of full vaccination, of recovery from Covid-19 in the preceding 6 months, or of a negative test result within the preceding 48 hours (for antigen tests) or 72 hours (for molecular tests). Ostensibly at least, it was introduced to facilitate safer travel and allow entry to large scale public events, but it is clear that its primary purpose was in fact to nudge more people into getting vaccinated. And because it seemed to work, the nudge has been getting sharper ever since, first with the Green Pass becoming mandatory in all enclosed public venues such as theatres, cinemas, museums and restaurants, then in all public sector workplaces, and in mid-October it became mandatory in all private sector workplaces too.
But from 6th December to 15th January, that nudge is turning into something closer to an armlock. For a start, the list of things for which the original, ‘basic’ Green Pass is required during this period has got even longer and now includes most types of public transport. However, in a move explicitly designed to put even greater pressure on the unvaccinated to go and get their jabs, there is now also the, ‘super’ Green Pass. This is available only to those who are either fully vaccinated or who have recovered from Covid-19 – a recent negative test result doesn’t qualify – and will be required for a broad range of venues and activities for which the ‘basic’ Green Pass was originally required. Moreover, should conditions deteriorate enough to necessitate restrictions on movement within or between regions in different zones – a possibility which can no longer be regarded as merely hypothetical – they will be applicable almost exclusively to those who are not in possession of the ‘super’ Green Pass, that is, principally to those who are unvaccinated.
As well as pulling out all the stops to get as many people as possible vaccinated, the policy is, it appears, also aimed at avoiding the ire of the vast majority who understandably feel they have earned the freedoms getting vaccinated was supposed to ensure, and who therefore equally understandably feel they should not have to forego those freedoms in order to protect the small minority from the possible consequences of their own continued inaction. And it appears to be working: while there has been a degree of grumbling about the complexity of the new measures as well as questions about their enforceability, there has been little real opposition and even fewer actual protests. Added to which, the vaccination rate has soared back up to around half a million jabs per day, and boosters are now available to everyone whose second jab was over five months ago.
So as Mr Blue-Shirt and I are among the nearly 46 million people who will be able to enjoy the rewards for having ‘done our bit’ for the collective good, we were also among those filling their trolleys with extra-sparkly baubles, angels and stars, extra-abundant wreaths and garlands and super-size trees, determined to indulge in a lot more Christmas cheer than last year – even if we do have to show our Super Green Passes to do so. And even if that cheer turns out to be short-lived.