German lawmakers voted on Friday to make Covid vaccines mandatory for healthcare workers – an important move in a country where protests over coronavirus restrictions have been widespread.
The mandate, which will come into effect in mid-March, comes after the country last week announced a lockdown of those who are not vaccinated, and as countries in Europe reintroduced measures to control the spread of the coronavirus. The efforts have taken on increased urgency as scientists rush to understand the risks posed by the recently detected Omicron variant.
Although initial reports suggest that Omicron is spreading faster than previous variants, there are some early signs that it can cause mostly mild illness, but this observation was mainly based on cases in South Africa in young people. , who are generally less likely to become seriously ill from Covid. . There are also early indications that at least some vaccines will continue to work, but perhaps at reduced levels.
In Spain, which has some of the highest vaccination rates in Europe, authorities warned on Friday that the situation was returning to a “high risk” level. Despite the country’s strong vaccination campaign, its infection rate has reached levels not seen since August.
And in Greece, to fight an increase in infections there, the government has imposed monthly fines of more than $ 100 on anyone over 60 who refuses to be vaccinated.
Germany is joining a number of European countries in making vaccination compulsory for healthcare workers, including France and Italy, who were among the first. Both countries have since gone even further by requiring proof of vaccination or negative tests for people to participate in much of public life.
In November, the British government announced that all frontline health workers in England must be vaccinated against Covid-19 by spring to keep their jobs. He is now considering tighter restrictions across the country for those unvaccinated.
The Biden administration issued three warrants in September – one for federal contractors, another for healthcare workers, and a third for companies with more than 100 employees. But the broad immunization mandates affecting the private sector have been delayed by the courts.
Austria has gone the furthest from any Western democracy, demanding the Covid vaccination for all adults.
But the World Health Organization has warned that warrants should be “an absolute last resort.”
Dr Hans Kluge, director of the WHO in Europe, told reporters this week that “any measure that might restrict a person’s right or movement, such as blockages or warrants, must ensure that mental health and well-being are taken care of. for.”
Olaf Scholz, who was sworn in as German Chancellor this week, has prioritized tackling the rising tide of infections in Germany. And he has expressed support for broad Covid vaccine mandates, even in the face of large-scale protests.
âYou cannot ruthlessly look at the situation as it is right now,â he recently told German publication Bild. âIf we had a higher vaccination rate, we would have a different situation. “
Currently, health authorities record an average of just under 50,000 new infections each day. As of Thursday, they recorded nearly 500 deaths in a single day, a number not seen since before vaccines became widely available.
Hospitals are also under increasing pressure. There are now nearly 5,000 Covid patients in intensive care units, a number approaching the peak of the third pandemic wave in the spring, when politicians ordered a full lockdown.
More than 69% of Germany’s population is fully vaccinated, but the rate of daily vaccinations has recently risen to levels not seen since early summer.
Karl Lauterbach, the country’s new health minister, said the government aims to reduce the daily infection rates still driven by the Delta variant to levels that would make travel around Christmas safe again.
“We have no time to waste,” said Mr. Lauterbach, a Harvard-trained epidemiologist and public health expert.
Under the new law, dentists and pharmacists will for the first time be allowed to administer Covid vaccines to bolster the national vaccination campaign.
But even as Germany introduced the warrant, Mr Lauterbach said in an interview that no one would be jailed for refusing to be vaccinated.
These assurances, widely reported in German media, are unlikely to have a major effect on the tens of thousands of people who have protested both against vaccination warrants and restrictions on coronaviruses.
Last weekend, a torch-bearing crowd demonstrated outside the private residence of a minister of state responsible for health. This week, credible plans to attack the Prime Minister of Saxony were detailed on an anti-coronavirus channel from the Telegram messaging service and led to police raids in Saxony, where authorities found weapons.
After meeting with governors on Thursday, the new chancellor, Mr Scholz, was quick to downplay the differences over restrictions and mandates.
“Germany is not divided,” he told reporters at a press conference. âThe vast majority of citizens – very, very many – have been vaccinated. “
Raphael Minder contributed reports.