Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ interview on CNN, with journalist Christiane Amanpour

Christiane Amanpour: The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is now mandating vaccination for everyone over the age of 60 or face a monthly recurring fine of 100 euros, that’s about 113 dollars. He says he was personally tormented by this decision, but insists that it is not a punishment, just the price of health care. And Prime Minister Mitsotakis is joining me now from Athens for an exclusive interview. Welcome to the program, Prime Minister. I guess the first question is how did it get this way in Greece? Who are the unvaccinated?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis : First of all, Christiane, let me point out that more than three out of four adult Greeks have already received the first dose of the vaccine, but we were facing a situation where 17 percent of people above 60 had not yet been vaccinated. And unfortunately, these are the people who end up in our hospitals. They end up occupying the overwhelming majority of ICU beds, and unfortunately, these are the people who lose their lives. I think we’ve done everything in our capacity to convince these people that they need to get vaccinated.

We’ve run a very extensive PR campaign.The case has been made very, very convincingly that you risk getting severely sick if you are unvaccinated. So we did take the decision to move towards mandatory vaccination, imposing a monthly fine. And what I can tell you is that since we took the decision, we have seen a significant uptick in appointments from people from this age group to actually get vaccinated. So I would hope that by January 16th, when the fine is going to kick in, an overwhelming majority of those people will take the decision to get vaccinated.

Not everyone will take that decision, but it seems that the mandatory aspect of our decision-making has nudged enough people to take the necessary step to protect themselves and their families.

Christiane Amanpour: So let me just read a few statistics from your office. Nine out of 10 deaths in Greece from COVID are with citizens 60 and over seven out of 10 who have to be intubated are 60 and over, eight out of 10 intubated are unvaccinated. So I guess I could ask you, why did it take you this long, then, to impose the idea of fines? You said it was a decision that personally tormented you, but could you have taken it earlier?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: First of all, let me point out that the statistics are not different from what you see in any other country. Right now we have a pandemic of the unvaccinated. And if you talk to any of my colleagues, they will tell you that it is the unvaccinated who get severely sick, they are the ones who end up in the ICU beds and unfortunately they lose their lives.

According to our constitution, we have to take progressive measures. And, of course, mandatory vaccination is the ultimate measure that we can take. We have already mandated mandatory vaccinations for healthcare professionals and now we’re extending it to the people above 60. I would point out that we are just the second European country doing that. I wouldn’t be surprised, Christiane, if other European countries followed in our path. The President of the Commission mentioned that mandatory vaccinations need to be discussed. Of course, every country is different. Every country has different constitutional constraints.

I’m a liberal politician. I don’t like mandatory measures by nature, but I feel it is the right decision to protect people who – I know – if they don’t get vaccinated will get sick, and some of them unfortunately will lose their lives. So I am very comfortable with the decision that we took. And so far, if we just look at how quickly vaccination rates have increased, I think we took the right decision.

In general, we’ve tried to be ahead of the curve. We were one of the first European countries to open booster shots to all age groups. Our healthcare experts have reduced the interval between the second and third shots to three months and also, in our case, the vaccination certificate will expire seven months after you had your second shot. So we’re trying our best to also make sure that people who are already vaccinated will get the booster shots. Αnd we’re one of the European leaders when it comes to putting the third shot into people’s arms.

Christiane Amanpour: Clearly the proof is in the pudding and, as you say, if people have increased their uptake, that’s a good thing. Every health expert in the world says there is no way out of this pandemic without a much wider and broader vaccination campaign. But I just want to put up a graph because you said your statistics are similar to your neighbors across Europe. I mean, I don’t know what you call neighbors, but Portugal has 81.6 percent of its population fully vaccinated. And then you see the others, going down, and you’re at 62.4%. So I see why you needed or wanted to do that.

But let me ask you, because inevitably politics gets played, the leader of your opposition, former Prime Minister Tsipras has said -and I’m sure you’ve read it- that instead of expanding vaccination rates in the population as everyone hoped, we’ll have a wave of reaction that will not help anyone. Your comment on that. You’ve already told me that, in the interim, it has expanded and increased the uptake. Are you concerned at all that there might be reaction and protests like you see in the Netherlands, in Belgium and elsewhere?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We’ve had very limited protests, Christiane, and I think this is a very, very good sign. And we’ve also imposed significant restrictions on the unvaccinated. Again ,we were one of the first European countries to make it clear that if you want to go have a meal in a restaurant or if you want to go to a movie, you have to be vaccinated; a negative test will not do the trick.

Unfortunately, we haven’t had as much political consensus as in other countries. The opposition has chosen to make the pandemic a political issue. I think they’re making a big mistake, because we’re struggling with the same problem as any other country in the world. But again, as you said, the proof is in the pudding and we need to see vaccination rates increase. We’ve seen that, significantly, over the past weeks. So I think that our policies will eventually be vindicated. The other aspect of our policies, which I would like to highlight – which I think is very important – is, of course, expanding testing even further.

This week we’re launching universal testing for the entire population. Every Greek citizen has a right to a self-test. We will do the same immediately after New Year’s Eve to make sure that we also identify citizens who possibly test positive but have no symptoms. And, again, that’s the only way to keep our economies open. We do not intend to impose a lockdown. The Greek economy is going to grow significantly this year. The statistics for the third quarter came out just today, more than 11 percent increase in our GDP. Our tourism did very well.

So if we want to keep our economy open and functioning and make sure we create enough wealth for all Greeks, we have to get vaccinated and we have to make sure that we adhere to the basic precautions: getting tested and making sure we wear our masks.

Christiane Amanpour: Way back, when the pandemic started back in 2020, you were one of the first to impose strict measures. And by that summer Greece was the destination of choice for many, many people who couldn’t go anywhere else. And there was a big tourism boom in your country. How do you account for that success, where other countries have seen less success in terms of keeping their economy open and their health in control as well?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We did particularly well during the first wave because we shut down the economy very quickly. We’ve done less well during the second and the third wave, as was the case in most European countries. But as far as tourism is concerned, I think we communicated very, very clearly what the rules are. We wanted people to visit Greece safely. They did so in significant numbers during the summer. We did better than we expected. And, of course, now we want to prepare for an even better tourism season in 2022, assuming we have no other unpleasant surprises.

But even with the Omicron variant -again, we don’t know how bad this is going to get- what we do know right now is that there is one remedy and that is vaccines. Not just the first of the second dose, but also the booster shot. So we’re focusing on that. But again, as far as the pandemic is concerned, clear communication and rapid decision-making is critical.

And, again, if for whatever reason, one needs to change their mind -this happens when data indicates that we should do that- we had not planned to make vaccination mandatory, but we looked at the data, we looked at Omicron and we said, this is the right decision and we need to take it now to protect our people and make sure we have no further unnecessary loss of life.

Christiane Amanpour: Τalking about loss of life and it is tragic, there is a considerable loss of life amongst migrants and those seeking asylum in Europe. Not so long ago here, between France and the UK, in the English Channel, you know the unbelievable sight of 27 people, including children, drowning in the English Channel, just trying to get asylum, which is their right. And the Pope, of course, has been on the Greek island of Lesbos, and he has been very, very concerned -of course, you have a very big migrant camp there- and he’s talking in general about unreasonable fears of countries about migrants.

I mean, his actual words were, “we’re witnessing a retreat from democracy in Europe by people and politicians lured by the populist wave”. What’s your reaction to that? Because if you look at Britain, if you look at France, even though right-wing politicians make a big deal about migrants, there actually aren’t that many, relatively speaking, coming into those countries.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: We suffer from being a country that is on the external border of the European Union, and we’re very happy that the Pope visited us for a second time. I’m sure that when he went to Lesbos he saw a situation that was significantly improved compared to 2016. We now have organized facilities that offer humane treatment to desperate people who reach our shores. But I think it is right to point out that there hasn’t been enough solidarity when it comes to sharing the burden of migration.

Greece has granted more than 50,000 asylum permits over the past year. We were the one European country, Christiane, that welcomed women from Afghanistan in significant numbers. We have more than 800 women and their families in Greece, because we thought this was the right thing to do, to offer these women and their families protection from a regime that could possibly persecute them. At the same time, we are defending our borders with full respect for fundamental rights, and we feel that this is the right approach to take.

We have to eradicate the smuggling networks. We have to stop people being trafficked in these horrible conditions. And the one way of doing it is to open legal pathways to people who would want to come to Greece, come to Europe to not just be safe from war and persecution, but also to seek a better economic future. Unfortunately, we haven’t made much progress in terms of European solidarity on this file. And yes, there are European countries who consider this simply not to be their problem. And they just want to make it the problem of the countries that -simply by virtue of their geographic position- happen to be on the external borders of the European Union.

Christiane Amanpour: Let me play this soundbite from the Pope, I mean, he is the world’s moral leader, and he’s used the plight of refugees throughout his papacy. And this is what he said about civilization and the risk to civilization from the way migrants are treated.

Pope Francis (video): Τhe Mediterranean, which for millennia has brought different peoples and distant lands together, is now becoming a grim cemetery without tombstones. This great basin of water, the cradle of so many civilisations now looks like a mirror of death. Brothers and sisters, please let us stop this shipwreck of civilization.

Christiane Amanpour: That’s pretty pointed and I’m just wondering whether you think not just war but climate also will push more migrants. Let me just quote the World Bank. 200 million people could become internal climate migrants or displaced by 2050. And I’m just wondering, what do you think when you envision that possibility? And this is now a climate question: whether you and everybody else can manage the climate crisis before this happens?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: You’re right to point out that unless we address the underlying causes of migration we will be under more pressure. But just to come back to the words of the Pope, very powerful words, I can tell you that we’re doing our best every day to save people whose lives are at risk at sea. But we also need to work with our neighbors. And in this case, we need to work with Turkey.

Turkey in the past has weaponized migration. You remember very well what happened in March 2020. I think they are taking a different approach now, which is the right approach. We need to cooperate together to eradicate the smugglers. In our case, it’s a very short distance between the Turkish shore and the Greek islands. And we’re happy that we have managed to significantly reduce arrivals by more than 80%, since I took over as Prime Minister.

This also sends a signal to smugglers, but also to the “customers: don’t try this, this is a very, very dangerous journey. So unless we eradicate these networks, and at the same time offer legal pathways, legal entry points for migration, the situation is not going to be addressed. But also uncontrolled migration, what we saw in 2015, when essentially we opened our borders to anyone, that is clearly also not the solution. And that also will not be tolerated by European public opinion.

Christiane Amanpour: Prime Minister, thank you so much indeed for joining us. Important topics. Thanks a lot.