BRUSSELS, Belgium — It is time for the European Union to “think about mandatory vaccination” against COVID-19, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday, while stressing member state governments would decide.
“My personal position is… I think it is understandable and appropriate to lead this discussion now,” she told a media conference, underlining that a third of the EU population of 450 million was still unvaccinated.
“How we can encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union? This needs discussion. This needs a common approach. But it is a discussion that I think has to be led,” she said.
Several EU countries have already taken steps in that direction.
Austria has announced compulsory COVID-19 vaccinations from February 1 next year and Germany is mulling following suit.
Greece on Tuesday said shots would be mandatory for over-60s, while France has said COVID passes would be deactivated for all adults who have not had booster shots six months after their last shot, starting January 15.
Von der Leyen also said that the EU’s main COVID vaccine provider, BioNTech-Pfizer, would have shots available for children in the bloc in two weeks’ time.
She said she had spoken with the German-US joint venture about the issue the day before, and they said “they are able to accelerate — in other words children’s vaccines will be available as of December 13.”
She noted that “if you look at the numbers we have now, 77 percent 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.”
The EU’s vaccination drive is very uneven across the 27-nation bloc.
Portugal, Malta, Spain, Italy, Ireland, France and Belgium have all vaccinated more than three-quarters of their populations, while eastern member states Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Croatia all have inoculated less than half.
“We have the vaccines, the life-saving vaccines, but they are not being used adequately everywhere,” von der Leyen said.
While the European Commission pre-purchased COVID vaccines for use in the EU, von der Leyen emphasized that the individual countries had the responsibility on how their vaccination programs were done.
The EU chief’s comments echoed those made by Israel’s coronavirus czar Salman Zarka hours earlier.
“I think we need to examine all the options, including the option of mandating vaccination in the State of Israel,” Zarka told Radio 103FM in an interview.
Zarka stressed that the opinion was his alone and not that of the Health Ministry.
“This option of mandating a vaccine in the State of Israel, similar to several countries in the world, whether in the context of legislation or in the context of other means, must be examined, it must be considered,” he said.
He said that a relaxed approach to inoculation in Israel threatened the ongoing success of the swift vaccine campaign introduced earlier this year.
“The approach in Israel, unlike some countries in the world, is more enabling, more inclusive, gives more time to let people make their decisions. It comes at a price,” he said.
“There are 680,000 people in Israel who have not been vaccinated at all. We are constantly trying to reach them,” Zarka said. “It is quite clear to me that they are not vaccine refusers, but looking at what happened to us in the fourth wave of epidemic, which hit the unvaccinated more than others, one has to consider how such people will be vaccinated.”
He nonetheless stressed that there would be no “surprise” legislation forcing vaccination.
However, Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin, on the other hand, told Army Radio that he believes vaccine mandates are the preserve of dictatorships.
“I do not think there is a state that acts like this, except for dictatorial states,” he said. “It is possible to encourage vaccination or give a negative incentive to the unvaccinated, but not to obligate it by law.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.