Italy PM Draghi appeals for elderly to get vaccine priority


FILE PHOTO: Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi speaks during a news conference after a cabinet meeting in Rome, Italy, March 19, 2021. Alberto Pizzoli/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said on Thursday vaccines should for now on only be given to the elderly and appealed to regional governments and individuals not to flout his guidelines.

Unlike many other European countries, when Italy launched its vaccination campaign at the end of December, its army of pensioners were not given automatic precedence, despite the fact that they have borne the brunt of the killer disease.

The failure to provide swifter protection has cost thousands of lives, experts say.

"Stop vaccinating people who are under 60, stop vaccinating young people," Draghi told a news conference, raising his voice in an impassioned plea.

Under Italy's constitution it is the country's 20 regions which have the final say on who gets vaccinated, and many have allowed professional groups such as magistrates and journalists to get a jab before people over the age of 70.

"With what conscience does someone jump the queue, knowing that he or she is exposing someone who is over 75 or frail to the risk of death," Draghi said.

The former European Central Bank chief said it was in the interests of the regions to vaccinate older people because it would reduce fatalities and allow COVID restrictions to be eased sooner.

Italy has the second highest coronavirus death toll in Europe and the seventh highest in the world. It is currently seeing around 400 deaths per day despite tough curbs on business and movement that have been in place for most of this year.

Draghi said his two-month-old government would make the inoculation rate of old people a criterion to determine when these curbs could be lifted.

However, despite pressure from the rightist League party which is in his national unity government, Draghi declined to give any date for the end of the lockdown measures, saying it would depend exclusively on infection and vaccination rates.

Like other large European Union countries, Italy has had a sluggish vaccine rollout, dogged by missed delivery deadlines, but Draghi said he remained "optimistic," and had "no doubt" his goal of 500,000 shots per day could be reached this month.

In recent weeks the country has been vaccinating about half that number, and problems have now been exacerbated by health concerns over the AstraZeneca brand which regulators have said may cause rare blood clots in the brain among young adults.

Numerous European countries are now recommending it be used only for people over a certain age - 60 in Italy's case.

Draghi said COVID-19 variants would mean inoculations would continue to be necessary and pledged that in future years Italy's vaccine contracts would be handled better.

For now, the country is assured of enough shots to vaccinate all over-80s and "a large part" of over-75s this month, he said.

Asked whether Italy may sign up for Russia's Sputnik vaccine, Draghi said that if it was approved by the EU's regulator he had no preclusion against using it.

(additional reporting by Giuseppe Fonte, editing by Crispian Balmer)

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