By Nick Theodoulou and Elias Hazou
The cabinet may on Friday further tighten the grip on unvaccinated individuals by expanding the enforcement of the SafePass to include businesses with a capacity of less than 20 people as well.
Various media outlets said the idea was being floated among members of the coronavirus advisory team, meeting late Thursday.
The Cyprus News Agency cited sources as saying that the health minister would take the proposal to the cabinet on Friday.
It was suggested that measure might be introduced as of August 1; the health minister’s current decree expires on July 31.
Currently, many businesses like kiosks and minimarkets with fewer than 20 people – including the staff – are exempt from the SafePass requirement. But the latest measure – if enforced – would see daily life essentially impossible without SafePass compliance.
The government has also decided that as August 1 it will no longer offer free testing for the general population.
Wading into the debate, the ombudswoman on Thursday urged authorities to reconsider that decision. She cited the World Health Organisation which recently recommended increasing the public’s access to free tests, as well as the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights opining that diagnostic tests should be universally accessible, swift and provided for free.
“Ceasing the provision of free rapid testing not only prompts vaccination, as is the state’s objective, but at the same time it prevents the detection of cases, containing cases, tracking the transmission chain and, by extension, deters containment of the pandemic and the reduction of cases.”
In a statement, Maria Stylianou-Lottides also called on the government to reassess eligibility for a SafePass in certain venues, which accept only vaccinated people or those who have recovered from Covid-19 – meaning a negative test is not admissible as a SafePass.
This would avoid creating discrimination among people when it came to access to goods and services, she said.
Lottides said the government’s messaging to the public, but also the measures themselves, should not “serve as a way of separating and discriminating among citizens, and not divide society into camps of individuals who have been vaccinated and individuals not wishing to be vaccinated, and not create polarisation, tension and social stigma.”
The ombudswoman went on to recommend that the state, in implementing policy, should distinguish between access to essential and non-essential goods and services (for example public health services) “and ensure uninterrupted access, without excessive conditions and in particular the vaccination condition, but rather to take into account exceptions and the three options for issuing a SafePass, which would include not only vaccination, as explicitly stated in the Council of Europe resolution.”
Another major item on the advisory team’s Thursday meeting was the issue of whether to proceed, if at all, with the vaccination of children and young teenagers.
The government’s advisors are faced with three main proposals: inducting those age 12 and above into the vaccination programme or simply to teenagers 12 and above who are at-risk or to only open the process for 15-year-olds.
Currently 16-17-year-olds can receive the vaccine with parental permission.
Attending the advisory team’s meeting were representatives of the Paediatric Organisation of Cyprus and any final proposal would be tabled at Friday’s cabinet, where a final decision is expected.
“As to which proposal will gain widespread support, I’m not sure, but I feel that if we want protection then it should be as widespread as possible,” Dr Petros Karayiannis, professor of microbiology/molecular virology of the Medical School at the University of Nicosia, told the Cyprus Mail on Thursday afternoon.
Positive tests remain at steadily high levels along with concerns of the increased transmissibility of the Delta variant – leading many to argue that ‘herd immunity’ requires 80-90 per cent of the population to be vaccinated – while the reopening of schools is on the horizon.
The US, Canada and Greece are among the countries that have pushed ahead with vaccinating the over-12s.
However, the UK in mid-July opted to so far only vaccinate children over the age of 12 who are at a higher risk of getting ill or live with household members who are vulnerable.
Asked about the UK’s policy, Karayiannis said: “Selecting the ones who are at risk is not going to keep the schools open in the autumn and unless there is coverage through immune protection we’ll have a problem again.”
He said the same applies to teachers.
“If they’re not immunised then they shouldn’t be working in such a place,” he said.
Referencing the UK, Karayiannis reasoned that with almost 90 per cent vaccination coverage – compared to Cyprus’ 70 per cent – they are able to chart a different course. As of Wednesday, the UK had 88 per cent first-dose coverage and 71 per cent double dosed.
The UK’s decision is based on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) and was made within the context of fewer than 30 children having died with Covid-19 in the UK.
Prof Anthony Harnden, the deputy chairman of the JCVI, said: “The primary aim of the vaccination programme has always been to prevent hospitalisations and deaths.
“Based on the fact that previously well children, if they do get Covid-19, are likely to have a very mild form of the disease, the health benefits of vaccinating them are small.”
Speaking on the CyBC evening news bulletin, Maria Koliou – a member of the advisory team – said there was still some disagreement over the issue of whether 12 to 14-year olds should be required to get the jab.
Asked why the vaccinated should not need to get tested, Koliou said there was “no sense in that.”
She added: “Someone who is vaccinated and catches Covid, even with symptoms, will have a very low viral load.”
Also speaking to the CyBC, epidemiologist Michalis Voniatis attributed to the SafePass the stabilisation in the number of coronavirus cases in recent days.
He said the trend was in fact slightly downward, and he expected this to continue over the coming days.
Regarding the idea of vaccinating the 12 to 15 age group, Voniatis opined:
“It is good to shield all ages. The vaccine offers the best protection. The Delta variant can affect young people and make them ill.”