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Resistance grows to new German chancellor’s push for vaccine mandate

Despite Olaf Scholz’s backing of measure, his coalition partner says while ‘protecting human health and life is highly desirable… our greatest asset…is and remains our freedom’

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz addresses a press conference, after a meeting on measures to curb the COVID-19 pandemic with the heads of government of Germany's federal states, at the Chancellery in Berlin on January 7, 2022. (John MacDougall/Pool/AFP)
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz addresses a press conference, after a meeting on measures to curb the COVID-19 pandemic with the heads of government of Germany's federal states, at the Chancellery in Berlin on January 7, 2022. (John MacDougall/Pool/AFP)

FRANKFURT, Germany (AFP) — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz insisted Friday that his plan to introduce mandatory coronavirus vaccines was on track, despite fierce debate about the controversial move and growing resistance from his own coalition partners.

Scholz, who recently took over as chancellor from Angela Merkel, in late November touted compulsory vaccines for all adults as the surest way out of the pandemic.

The center-left Social Democrat asked MPs in the lower of house parliament to draft the necessary legislation with the goal of introducing the measure in “late February or early March.”

Little progress has been made since then, however, and the fast-spreading but less severe Omicron strain has raised fresh doubts about the project, particularly among the pro-business FDP party.

Speaking after a meeting with the leaders of Germany’s 16 states on tighter coronavirus curbs, Scholz reiterated that “it would be good if we ended up with a general vaccine mandate.”

He said all of Germany’s state premiers had declared their backing for the plan.

“I feel fully supported” by them, he said.

A medical assistant prepares a syringe with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children at a vaccination center set up at a car dealership in Iserlohn, western Germany, on January 5, 2022. (Ina Fassbender/AFP)

The same cannot be said for the FDP, who along with the Greens make up Scholz’s three-way coalition government.

Although coronavirus cases are rising, Germany has so far been spared the steep Omicron surge that has swept other nations — prompting Justice Minister Marco Buschmann from the FDP to call for a wait-and-see approach on a general vaccine mandate.

FDP chief Christian Lindner said new findings “could play a role in the decision,” in a nod to Omicron infecting even the triple vaccinated, and studies suggesting a lower hospitalization rate than with the Delta variant.

“Protecting human health and life is highly desirable. But our greatest asset… is and remains our freedom,” he said on Thursday.

German Finance Minister Christian Lindner speaks during a meeting of the Free Democratic Party at the Opera House in Stuttgart, southern Germany on January 6, 2022. (Thomas Kienzle/AFP)

Germany’s first parliamentary debate on compulsory vaccines is only scheduled for late January, even though Scholz himself had originally aimed to have lawmakers discuss the issue before 2021 was out.

“The longer the discussion about mandatory vaccinations lasts… the more the project wobbles,” wrote Sueddeutsche newspaper.

Hundreds, at times thousands, of protesters have taken to the streets to rail against the government’s COVID approach and vaccine plan in recent weeks, occasionally resulting in clashes with police.

Austrian example

With just over 71 percent of the population double vaccinated, Germany has a lower coronavirus vaccination rate than France, Italy or Spain.

Almost 42 percent of Germans have had their booster shot, considered crucial in the fight against Omicron.

Like several other countries, Germany has already announced vaccine mandates for those in certain professions, including soldiers and health workers.

Six-year-old Hanna is inoculated with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children at a vaccination center set up at a car dealership in Iserlohn, western Germany, on January 5, 2022. (Ina Fassbender/AFP)

Neighboring Austria has gone further and is on the verge of introducing a general vaccine mandate, in what could be the first in Europe.

While it has stirred controversy there too, the measure is backed by all the political parties except Austria’s far-right FPOe.

“Compulsory vaccination will come, all experts agree on the high protective effect also against Omicron and hospitalizations,” said Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer.

‘Sensitive topic’

A government spokeswoman on Friday rejected media suggestions that Scholz has lost the grip on his timetable, saying mandatory vaccination was a “sensitive topic” that merited a “public and wide” discussion.

Several MPs from the FDP, a party traditionally in favor of low government intervention, have said they will table a motion against the plan.

FDP lawmaker and health expert Andrew Ullmann suggested a compromise, saying he would propose mandatory vaccines for the over-50s only, after Italy’s example.

The opposition meanwhile has attacked Scholz for passing the buck to parliament instead of having the government spearhead the draft legislation.

“We need speed and leadership,” said Hendrik Wuest, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia state from the center-right CDU, cautioning against “political maneuvering” in the battle against the pandemic.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, an epidemiologist from Scholz’s Social Democrats, said compulsory vaccines had to come quickly to avoid the worst of what Omicron — and future variants — could have in store.

“Mandatory vaccination is the path that’s necessary for Germany,” he told broadcaster RTL.

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