By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican on Thursday moved to clarify a decree that implied employees could lose their jobs if they refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccination without legitimate health reasons, after criticism on social media.
A Feb. 8 decree by Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, the governor of Vatican City, said getting a vaccine was "the responsible choice" because of the risk of harming other people.
Vatican City, at 108 acres the world's smallest state, has several thousand employees, most of whom live in Italy. Its vaccination programme began last month and Pope Francis, 84, was among the first to get the vaccine.
The decree said that those who cannot get vaccinated for health reasons may be given another position, presumably where they would have contact with fewer people, but will receive the same pay even if the new post is a demotion.
But the decree said those who refuse to get a vaccination without sufficient reason would be subject to a specific provision in a 2011 law on employee rights and duties.
The article in the 2011 law says employees who refuse "preventive measures" could be subjected to "varying degrees of consequences that could lead to dismissal".
After news stories about the decree on Thursday, many Italians took to Twitter to criticise it, with some saying it was contrary to Pope Francis' general call for mercy.
On Thursday night, Bertello's office issued a statement saying that "alternative solutions" would be found for those who do not want to get the vaccine.
It said the reference to the article in the 2011 law which specifically mentioned the possibility of dismissal should not be seen as "sanctioning or punitive" and that "freedom of individual choice" would be respected.
Pope Francis is a big supporter of vaccines to stem the spread of the coronavirus and the Vatican has made a COVID-19 vaccination obligatory for journalists accompanying the pope on his trip to Iraq next month.
There have been fewer than 30 cases of coronavirus in the Vatican City, most of them among the Swiss Guard, who live in a communal barracks.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Gareth Jones and Jonathan Oatis)