COVID-19 vaccination mandate push tests German ruling coalition

A sign displaying requirements for vaccination is seen as a person arrives to receive a shot of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine at a vaccination centre in the Humboldt Forum in Berlin on Jan. 19.

BERLIN — The Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament, began a debate on making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory Wednesday. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has requested that the law be enacted, saying it is necessary for anyone over the age of 18.

A vote on the related bill is likely in March.

It is rare for a major country to make vaccinations mandatory for all adults. In other countries, the judiciary branch has overturned executive branch mandates.

As there are also objections within Scholz’s coalition government, this will be a test of his leadership after taking office just over a month ago.

“Raising awareness alone will not improve the vaccination rate,” Scholz said in a parliamentary debate on Jan. 12. “It’s a decision you have to make not only for yourself, but also for 80 million [residents].”

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Germany’s vaccination rate is about 73%, lower than Japan’s about 79%.

Since the beginning of the year, there has been a sharp increase in the number of people infected with the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus. The daily number of infected people reached a record high of over 140,000 on Jan. 21.

The nation has tightened restrictions on the activities of unvaccinated people, such as prohibiting them from using restaurants. Even so, it is estimated that 60% of patients in intensive care units are unvaccinated, and the shortage of hospital beds has affected general patients such as by having their surgeries postponed.

The burden on administrative institutions is also increasing as police officers and firefighters are absent from work due to infection or close contact. For this reason, Scholz advocated this major policy change to make vaccinations compulsory as a precondition for promoting socioeconomic activities.

Germany’s constitution, the Basic Law, clearly states “Every person shall have the right to life and physical integrity.” It also guarantees the right to self-determination, as in Japan.

Though vaccination is voluntary, 88% of the elderly who are at high risk of serious illness have agreed to be vaccinated. Even if vaccination is made compulsory, opponents are unlikely to comply and would likely take the battle to court. There is also the fear that protests will become more radical.

A physicians’ group has raised concerns about the additional burden on the field of maintaining vaccination registers and contacting people who have not been vaccinated. There is a deep-seated opinion that the vaccination rate should be increased by methods other than through obligation.

According to a poll by public broadcaster ZDF, the percentage of people in favor of making vaccination mandatory for adults was 69% in November last year, 68% in December, and 62% on Jan. 14. It is believed that the increase in the number of breakthrough infections among vaccinated people and growing doubts about the effectiveness of vaccines had an impact on the downward trend.

The Free Democratic Party, a liberal faction in the three-party coalition government with Scholz’s Social Democratic Party, is not in favor of making vaccinations mandatory. Some lawmakers in the ruling coalition have submitted opposing proposals to the Bundestag.

Austria set to enact law

Besides Germany, Austria is also seeking to make vaccinations mandatory for adults. On Jan. 20, Austria’s lower house of Parliament passed a bill to make vaccinations compulsory in principle for people over the age of 18, excluding pregnant women. It is likely that the upper house will pass the bill to enact it as a law.

According to the Associated Press, this will be the first case in Europe where vaccinations will be mandatory for adults.

Austrian media including Kurier newspaper report that after an about one-month period to inform households, penalties will be introduced from mid-March for people who do not comply with the vaccination mandate. Fines up to €3,600 (about ¥463,000) may be imposed. There have been a series of protests against the bill in Austria.

Elsewhere in Europe, moves to implement vaccination mandates have begun by narrowing the age range, such as to people 50 and over in Italy and 60 and over in Greece.

In the United States, the Biden administration has demanded that vaccinations be made compulsory in principle for companies with more than 100 employees, but some state governors have opposed the order and lawsuits have been filed in many places.

On Jan. 13, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered an injunction against the measure, saying that it was beyond the government’s discretion.