By Angelo Amante
ROME (Reuters) -The Italian government announced plans on Thursday to phase out its coronavirus restrictions more than two years after the disease first swept the country, even though cases are once again on the rise.
The cabinet said COVID-19 health certificates, proving vaccination or recent recovery from coronavirus, would no longer be needed to gain access to a vast array of services, including restaurants, gyms and public transport, from May 1.
The requirement that anyone aged over 50 should be vaccinated to enter their place of work will expire on April 1.
The state of emergency, which allows public authorities to bypass bureaucracy and impose rules via decrees, will expire on March 31. From that date, the board of experts advising the government on COVID will be disbanded.
“These are important measures that remove almost all the curbs that have restricted us,” Prime Minister Mario Draghi told a news conference following a cabinet meeting.
“I would also like to thank all Italians for their altruism and patience over the years. We are often perceived as having little sense of civic duty, but instead we have done very well in this pandemic. We should be proud,” he said.
Italy was the first Western nation to be clobbered by the disease and it has so far registered 157,442 deaths, the eighth highest tally in the world.
However, a recent decline in infections has come to an abrupt end, with cases rising strongly since the start of the month, as they have in many other European countries.
Draghi warned that the government would reintroduce curbs if necessary, but expressed confidence in vaccinations, saying they had saved some 80,000 lives in 2021 alone.
Almost 84% of Italians have received the recommended two vaccine doses, while almost 65% of people have received a third shot.
Health Minister Roberto Speranza said there was no evidence at present to suggest that a fourth jab was needed, but said the government was nonetheless considering giving them to the elderly.
Many European nations have removed their COVID curbs more aggressively, with France opting to lift most of its restrictions at the start of this week.
However Italian think tank Gimbe urged caution on Thursday.
“Measures have to be relaxed on the basis of scientific evidence, not to emulate other countries,” it said in its weekly report.
(Editing by Frances Kerry and Crispian Balmer)