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'Well into spring' before Italy sees significant impact of COVID vaccine, PM says

ROME (Reuters) - Vaccines will start to have a clear impact on the spread of the coronavirus in Italy “well into spring” when 10-15 million people will have been inoculated, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Wednesday.

Italy, the first Western country to be hit hard by the pandemic, has reported more than 73,000 COVID-related deaths since discovering its outbreak late in February, the highest death toll in Europe and the fifth-highest in the world.

Italy kicked off its vaccination drive on Sunday with the first shots produced by Pfizer-BioNTech. The campaign will initially target health workers and the elderly, followed by people with chronic diseases.

“It will be well into spring when we see a first significant impact,” Conte told reporters at the prime minister’s traditional end-year news conference.

But he ruled out making the shots obligatory, contradicting some government members who had said this could be an option if insufficient numbers of people volunteer.

“I am asking for a collective effort, let’s put aside ideology or emotions. Let’s vaccinate,” Conte said.

The EU is due to receive its first 12.5 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine by Jan. 1, with distribution of 200 million doses across its 27 member countries to be completed by September.

Asked why Italy did not follow Germany’s example by procuring vaccine supply over and above its EU allotment, Conte said this was forbidden under the terms of the agreement overseen by the European Commission.

There have been complaints in Italy among commentators and the political opposition that Germany - the EU’s largest member state and home to BioNTech - may be getting more than its fair share of shots.

Most of the three-hour news conference was devoted to tensions in Conte’s ruling coalition in which former prime minister Matteo Renzi, leader of the tiny centrist party Italia Viva, constantly threatens to bring down the government.

Renzi is unhappy with Conte’s plans for using money expected from the European Recovery Fund. Among numerous other complaints he is also upset about the government’s reluctance to ask for a loan from the euro zone’s bailout fund and wants Conte to give up control of Italy’s secret services.

Conte warned that the bickering risked delaying Italy’s presentation of its Recovery Plan to the EU in order to access some 209 billion euros ($256.57 billion) from the Recovery Fund designed to help the bloc’s economies worst hit by the pandemic.

“We cannot govern without the cohesion of the majority,” he said in an appeal for unity. “We can struggle on, but Italy needs more than a government that just struggles on.”

($1 = 0.8146 euros)

Editing by Nick Macfie