ROME - Italy is to make a COVID-19 "Green Pass" mandatory for public and private sector workers, a minister said on Wednesday, becoming the first European country to do so as it tries to accelerate vaccination rates and stamp out infections.
The pass, a digital or paper certificate showing someone has received at least one vaccine dose, tested negative or recently recovered from the virus, was originally conceived to ease travel among EU states.
But Italy was among a group of countries that also made it an internal requirement for people to access venues such as museums, gyms and indoor dining in restaurants.
Regional Affairs Minister Mariastella Gelmini said on state radio that a cabinet meeting on Thursday would be "an important moment" in extending the obligatory use of the document.
Italy has also gradually extended use of the pass in the workplace, despite frictions over the issue in Prime Minister Mario Draghi's national unity coalition. Gelmini said the government was now ready to go further.
"We are heading towards a mandatory Green Pass not only for public sector workers but also private sector ones," she told RAI radio.
"The vaccine is the only weapon we have against COVID and we can only contain infection by vaccinating a great majority of the population."
Italy has the second-highest COVID-19 death toll in Europe after Britain and the eighth-highest in the world.
Around 73% of its 60-million-strong population have had at least one COVID shot, and 65% are fully vaccinated, figures broadly in line with most other European Union countries.
Thursday's cabinet meeting may be a tense one. Right-wing leader Matteo Salvini, leader of the co-ruling League, has repeatedly resisted extending the use of the Green Pass, but his party is internally split on the issue.
It remains to be seen if the government will go as far as pre-announced by Gelmini, who is from Silvio Berlusconi's conservative Forza Italia party.
Opponents of the Green Pass say it tramples on freedoms and is a back-door way of forcing people to vaccinate.
Talk of making it mandatory for public sector workers alone had already triggered muted protests, which would probably be stronger if it were extended to private firms.
Several other European countries use the health pass for leisure activities and travel, but none has made it mandatory for all public or private sector workers.
(Reporting by Giuseppe Fonte and Emilio Parodi, writing by Gavin Jones, editing by Nick Macfie) ((email@example.com; +39 06 8522 4232;))