Europe’s leaders turn to vaccine mandates as the winter COVID wave worsens, and Omicron looms

Less than two weeks after Austria became the first Western nation to announce a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for its whole population, Germany is on track to do the same—and the rest of the European Union may not be far behind.

On Tuesday, German Chancellor-in-waiting Olaf Scholz said he would vote for a compulsory-vaccination law. Scholz’s comments came after the incoming justice minister in his socialist-green-liberal “traffic light” coalition, Marco Buschmann, proposed a parliamentary debate and vote on the matter.

Scholz, who will be installed as Angela Merkel’s replacement within the next couple of weeks, said vaccinations should be made compulsory as of February or March. When the Bundestag vote comes, he and Buschmann both want it to be based on conscience, rather than forcing lawmakers to follow party lines. However, with Germany’s vaccination rate still at a lackluster 68.6%, support for a vaccine mandate is fairly broad-based in German politics, both within Scholz’s left-leaning coalition and among the outgoing conservatives (although Jens Spahn, the soon-to-be-ex–health minister, is skeptical about the idea).

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Ursula von der Leyen—the conservative president of the European Commission and a German national—said a “common approach” to compulsory vaccination was necessary across the EU, a bloc of 27 member states with a population of nearly 450 million. Von der Leyen, a former doctor, said the emergence of the possibly-more-transmissible Omicron variant meant the world was in a “race against time” to get vaccines into arms.

“If you look at the numbers, we have now 77% of the adults in the European Union vaccinated, or if you take the whole population, it’s 66%. And this means one-third of the European population is not vaccinated. These are 150 million people,” she said, according to the Guardian. “This is a lot, and not each and every one can be vaccinated—children, for example, or people with special medical conditions—but the vast majority could and therefore, I think it is understandable and appropriate to lead this discussion now.”

Greece is already preparing to follow Austria’s lead, to a degree. The Mediterranean country, which has a 62% vaccination rate, will from mid-January start fining over-60s €100 ($114) per month if they haven’t received at least their first dose.

Breaking the lockdown cycle

The German COVID situation right now is dire, with infection rates now much higher than the previous two peaks (in the last winter and spring) put together. Cases are up 22% week on week, and the country of 83 million just reported its highest COVID-19 death tally since February: 446 people gone in a day.

As of a couple of weeks ago, the German authorities no longer use case numbers as their guide when judging new restrictions, because vaccination keeps so many infected people from getting seriously ill. Instead, they are using weekly hospitalization rates. If a German state has more than three in 100,000 inhabitants in the hospital with COVID, it is supposed to restrict access to public leisure facilities to the vaccinated and recovered; six per 100,000 ups the ante to also mandate a negative test result; and nine per 100,000 means the statewide introduction of contact restrictions.

As things stand, Hamburg and Lower Saxony are the only two of the 16 German states with hospitalization rates below three per 100,000 inhabitants. The rate is above six in six states, and above nine in two: Saxony-Anhalt (10.5) and Thuringia (21.55).

With the German health care system under severe strain, the German Medical Association on Tuesday urged the government to “immediately” pass a law obliging all adults to get vaccinated and to impose “extensive contact restrictions” on the unvaccinated. The association said compulsory vaccination was the only way to break out of the cycle of lockdowns.

$4,000 fines

As for what a compulsory-vaccination law should look like in practice, that’s a debate currently underway across the border in Austria, where the government has promised to start its crackdown at the start of February. (The prospect of the vaccine mandate has already significantly increased vaccination rates there.)

According to a Wednesday report in Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a draft of the incoming Austrian law includes administrative fines of up to €3,600 ($4,080) for one offense—potentially cancelable if the fined person gives in to vaccination—and double that if the person still refuses. Hard-core holdouts might even find themselves in prison, but vaccinating people by physical force is off the table.

Even kids would be covered by the legislation, most likely down to the age of 14, which is Austria’s age of criminal responsibility. Where minors are involved, their parents and legal guardians would be on the hook for their compliance.

The Austrian law would also relax the country’s strict data protection law to allow the linkage of people’s electronic health records with centralized vaccination registers, FAZ reported. The law would remain valid for three years.

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