Explained: Why some European nations plan to make vaccinations mandatory

The recent discovery of the fast-spreading new Omicron variant has exacerbated the crisis across the continent, which has been recording significantly low vaccination rates overall.

With Europe returning to the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic amid an aggressive fourth wave, several nations are taking steps to make coronavirus vaccines mandatory for all eligible people by early next year. The recent discovery of the fast-spreading new Omicron variant has exacerbated the crisis across the continent, which has been recording significantly low vaccination rates overall.

On Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it was time to “potentially think about mandatory vaccination” within the bloc. “Two or three years ago, I would never have thought to witness what we see right now, that we have this horrible pandemic, we have the vaccines, the life-saving vaccines, but they are not being used adequately everywhere,” she said at a press briefing.

From fines to limited access to public places — countries like Germany and Greece have cracked down on their unvaccinated population in recent weeks. Shifting towards making vaccines mandatory is a particularly significant policy change, which was once considered unthinkable in many of these modern democracies. They had instead opted for incentives to encourage people to opt for the vaccine. But with cases continuing to rise, several of these countries are now planning to take the plunge — starting with Austria.

Here are the European nations planning to make vaccinations mandatory

Austria

Last month, Austria became the first European country to announce its plans to make Covid vaccines compulsory for all eligible adults. Apart from the vaccine mandate, which will go into effect on February 1, the country also imposed a nationwide lockdown to bring down infection rates.

“We have to look reality in the face,” Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said.

The Austrian government had earlier announced a targeted lockdown for unvaccinated adults, which may continue after the general lockdown ends.

While schools will remain open during the lockdown, officials have urged parents to allow their children to study from home.

According to a Reuters tally, Austria has administered at least 14,185,716 doses of Covid vaccines so far. Assuming every person needs 2 doses, that’s enough to have vaccinated about 79.9% of the country’s population

Germany

On Thursday, Germany announced a nationwide lockdown for its unvaccinated population — banning them from entering nearly all public places, other than essential businesses, to curb the spread of the virus. Significantly this is one of the last major policy moves announced by outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also backed proposals for mandatory vaccinations in the country.

If voted through the parliament, these vaccine mandates can be imposed from February, next year. “We have understood that the situation is very serious and that we want to take further measures in addition to those already taken,” Merkel told reporters. “The fourth wave must be broken and this has not yet been achieved.”

To encourage fully vaccinated people to get their booster shots, Merkel said that they will lose their vaccination status nine months after getting their last shot.

Once considered a frontrunner in the fight against Covid, Germany is now grappling with a crippling outbreak of fresh cases, particularly in its eastern states. It also has one of the lowest vaccination rates in western Europe, with around 65.5 per cent of its eligible population having received all doses.

Greece

From January onwards, unvaccinated people over the age of 60 will have to pay fines of up to €100 (around Rs 8,500) at monthly intervals, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said. The money will go towards the Greek healthcare system, which has been pushed to its limits amidst the recent outbreak.

“Greeks over the age of 60… must book their appointment for a first jab by January 16,” the premier announced this week. “Their vaccination is henceforth compulsory.” The measure will have to be passed in parliament, but lawmakers are largely expected to approve it.

Around 63 per cent of Greece’s 11-million strong population is fully vaccinated so far, BBC reported. According to data, over 520,000 people over the age of 60 are yet to receive the jab.

What’s the status in other European nations?

Several other European nations, such as the UK, Italy and France, have made vaccines compulsory for all frontline workers — including healthcare professionals, firefighters and transport workers.

In France, citizens require health passes to access bars, gyms, restaurants and events. To get the pass, people must either be fully vaccinated, recently tested negative or recently recovered from the virus.

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But many of these countries have categorically said that they will not introduce vaccine mandates. UK health secretary Sajid Javid in an interview with the BBC said that he did not think the government would “ever look at” mandating vaccines for the general population, pointing out that vaccine hesitancy was already low.

In Sweden too, the government has said that vaccinations will remain voluntary. “Keeping vaccinations voluntary, building trust and helping citizens make informed decisions, has proved to be successful in reaching high vaccination rates in Sweden,” a spokesperson for the Swedish government told Euronews.

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