Italy pushes for EU-wide China Covid measures as tests show no new variants

Italy's mandatory testing of visitors from China has not detected any new coronavirus variants, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Thursday, as she called for coordinated EU-wide measures.

Italy pushes for EU-wide China Covid measures as tests show no new variants
Italy's testing of arrivals from China would be “ineffective if not followed at a European level”, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni told her year-end press conference in Rome on Thursday. (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

The European Commission was debating a bloc-wide response to the end of China’s zero-Covid containment measures on Thursday, following Italy’s adoption of mandatory testing for all travellers arriving from China.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni continued to push for a common approach from EU member states as she revealed that Italy’s testing so far had not found any new coronavirus strains.

READ ALSO: Italy orders Covid screening for all arrivals from China

Those who have tested positive so far are carriers of “Omicron variants already present in Italy”, Meloni told her end-of-year press conference on Thursday afternoon.

Italy ordered tests on all arrivals from China on Wednesday following an explosion in cases reported by Beijing.

Meloni said the screening policy would be “ineffective” if not done on a European level, as only people arriving on direct flights from China were being tested in Italy, not those with stopovers.

She called for the EU to follow Rome’s move to test all air arrivals from China for coronavirus, and said Health Minister Orazio Schillaci would be pushing for the EU to roll out bloc-wide screening.

Schillaci said testing arrivals was “essential to ensure the surveillance and identification of any variants of the virus in order to protect the Italian population”.

READ ALSO: Why has Italy ordered Covid tests for all arrivals from China?

A passenger undergoes Covid testing at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. All travellers from China must undergo Covid testing on arrival in Italy, the goverment announced on Wednesday. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP)

Rome’s Spallanzani hospital for infectious diseases had warned on Wednesday that “in a country [like China] with a high percentage of unvaccinated people, in which ineffective vaccines have been used that give low population protection, such a strong exponential growth in infections could generate the selection of a new variant, much more immune-evasive and transmissible”

Milan’s Malpensa airport reported on Wednesday that almost half of all passengers arriving on flights from China had tested positive.

Those who test positive on arrival are required to isolate for at least five days, the health ministry confirmed.

Italy was the first European country to be hit by coronavirus in early 2020, introducing first a nationwide lockdown and then compulsory vaccines for certain people.

Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, which won September elections, had strongly criticised the restrictions when in opposition, and has sworn to take a different approach since taking power.

Coronavirus infections have surged in China as it unwinds hardline controls that had torpedoed the economy and sparked nationwide protests.

But a growing number of countries, including the United States, have imposed restrictions on visitors after China’s decision to end mandatory quarantine on arrival.

Health officials from the European Union’s 27 countries met on Thursday to “discuss the Covid-19 situation in China and possible measures to be taken in a co-ordinated way”.

“Co-ordination of national responses to serious cross-border threats to health is crucial,” the committee said after the meeting had concluded. “We need to act jointly and will continue our discussions.”

At the time of publishing no other EU member states have said that they intend to follow Italy’s lead, although French President Emmanuel Macron has asked his government to take “protective measures”.

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Italy’s government blocks attempt to bring in minimum wage

Italy's ruling parties on Wednesday scuppered an attempt by the opposition to introduce a minimum wage, which would have brought the country into line with the majority of the EU.

Italy's government blocks attempt to bring in minimum wage

Members of parliament voted instead to give Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s hard-right government six months to enact measures to make pay in Italy “fairer”.

Opposition members shouted “for shame!” as the bill, which would have set a minimum wage of nine euros an hour before tax, was quashed.

READ ALSO: Why is Italy’s government opposed to the minimum wage?

“You are on the side of the exploiters, you slap the exploited in the face!” thundered Elly Schlein, head of the centre-left opposition Democratic Party.

Italy is one of five countries in the European Union where wages are determined solely by collective bargaining between employers and trade unions. The others are Austria, Denmark, Finland and Sweden.

The centre-left put forward its proposal aimed at ending “poverty wages” in July, but Meloni’s coalition insists it could make some workers worse off.

The government has proposed extending collective agreements to some 20 percent of workers not covered by existing agreements.

But many of them remain well below nine euros an hour, such as those for cleaning services (6.52 euros), catering (7.28) or tourism (7.48).

As tempers frayed in parliament, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, head of the once anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), symbolically tore up a copy of the government’s bill, to the applause of opposition deputies.

Those who voted against the minimum wages “have turned their backs on 3.6 million workers”, he said.

But Meloni insisted that setting a minimum “paradoxically risks lowering wages, because 95 percent of workers have a higher hourly wage.”

“We risk an employer saying ‘if I can lower it to nine euros, why do I have to pay more?'”, she said on Wednesday.

The creation of a “decent salary” does not necessarily involve “setting a figure”, insisted Labour Minister Marina Elvira Calderone.

READ ALSO: Why Italy has no minimum wage

According to polls, 70 percent of Italians – including those who voted for the government’s coalition parties – are in favour of a minimum wage.

But some, including small traders, restaurant owners and farmers, are opposed to the minimum wage, which they consider too restrictive.

The unions are divided. The biggest, CGIL, said on Wednesday the government had “made a serious error” in opposing the minimum wage. But the other large union, CISL, is opposed to it because it worries it would reduce their powers over collective agreements.

According to the OECD, Italy is the only European country where real wages (excluding inflation) decreased between 1990 and 2020 (-2.9 percent). The EU brought in rules in November 2022 governing the minimum wage, but they are voluntary.