ZAGREB Croatia's government on Thursday proposed heavy fines for heads of public institutions or municipalities who fail to enforce digital certificates for their employees or visitors designed to help curb a renewed surge of COVID-19.

The European Union certificates, introduced in mid-November, prove that a person is vaccinated, has recovered from COVID-19 or has tested negative.

Since the certificates were introduced in Croatia, however, the heads of several municipalities have refused to apply them, saying they did not want to create divisions among citizens.

"We propose fines amounting to between 30,000 and 50,000 kuna ($7,537.27)," Health Minister Vili Beros told a cabinet session. Parliamentary approval is expected later this month, given the government's majority.

Several thousand people protested in the capital Zagreb's central square two weeks ago against the certificates, saying they violated fundamental freedom of choice over whether to be vaccinated or not.

The opposition conservative Most (Bridge) party will on Saturday begin collecting signatures from citizens in a bid to bring about a referendum on the use of the certificates.

For a referendum initiative to succeed, at least 10% of the electorate, or some 370,000 people, must give backing to the initiative within a period of two weeks.

The digital certificate mandate took effect on Nov. 15, affecting all public sector employees and citizens who need services in public institutions. Previously, it was a condition only in the health sector and among social care workers.

Some 50-55% of Croatians are fully vaccinated, below the EU average, and the government has stepped up efforts to get people inoculated as daily new infection numbers have resurged in the approach to winter.

The small southeast EU member country has reported several thousand new daily cases of COVID-19 in recent weeks. On Thursday a further 5,341 were reported along with 76 deaths.

($1 = 6.6337 kuna)

(Reporting by Igor Ilic; Editing by Mark Heinrich)