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COVID: No special freedoms for the vaccinated

Rina Goldenberg
February 4, 2021

Should those who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus be granted free travel or access to restaurants and cinemas? A debate on these issues is raging in Germany, with its ethics council weighing in.

People wearing FFP-2 masks on a subway platform
Image: Tobias Steinmaurer/picturedesk.com/picture alliance

The German Ethics Council on Thursday spoke out against lifting restrictions for individuals who have been vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Germany has been in partial lockdown since November. Bars, restaurants and cultural and sporting facilities are closed. Schools and non-essential shops were added to the list in mid-December, with rules on mask-wearing and working from home tightened in January amid concerns over new virus variants.

Vaccinations started at the end of December with people over 80 and their carers front of the line. There is currently a shortage of vaccines in Germany, and it will take several months for a majority of people to be immunized and become eligible for the lifting of restrictions.

Over the past few weeks tourism agencies, event managers and some politicians had suggested allowing those who have been vaccinated to travel, eat in restaurants, attend concerts and other events which would involve close contact with a high number of other people. 

Infectiousness of the vaccinated still unclear

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was the first high-profile politician to speak out in favor of lifting restrictions. "Someone who cannot fall seriously ill with the coronavirus anymore will not need intensive care and burden the health care system. He should no longer have to suffer restrictions to his basic rights and freedoms," he told Bild am Sonntag newspaper in January.

Such proposals have been met with criticism, for example from Left party chairwoman Katja Kipping, who urged adherence to freedom and equality stipulations in the German constitution.

Chancellor Angela Merkel also ruled out special regulations this Monday. The COVID-19 vaccination is not mandatory in Germany. Distinguishing between the vaccinated and those not vaccinated would be the same as a mandatory vaccination," Interior Minister Horst Seehofer had warned.

The ethics council on Thursday pointed out that it had to be clarified first whether vaccinated people might still be able to transmit the virus. Only if that were ruled out could any exemption from rules such as wearing masks in public places be considered.

"At the present time, withdrawing state restrictions on freedoms for vaccinated people should not take place as it is not yet possible to reliably assess infectiousness," Ethics Council head Alena Buyx told a news conference in Berlin on Thursday.

Slippery slope

Council member Sigrid Graumann warned of a knock-on effect if restrictions were lifted for vaccinated individuals. If those who have been vaccinated no longer need to wear a face mask when traveling on public transport, and no one comes to check their immunization passes, others may feel encouraged to do away with their masks too, she said. 

Council President Buyx warned that the term "privileges" was divisive and inaccurate. The council suggested lifting of restrictions on joint meals, family visits and small social gatherings for those living in care facilities, once everybody has been vaccinated there. The near-total isolation of those living in such facilities had led to depression and accelerated the onset of dementia among those living there. Such a curb on basic freedoms, the council warned, was only justifiable while the residents had not yet been vaccinated.

Lifting these restrictions was not a matter of granting "privileges," Grauman explained, but of retracting measures that had led to a disadvantage, which was legitimate only as long as there was no other way to protect lives.

The council saw a need to differentiate between regulations imposed by authorities and those imposed by private companies. The latter being free to decide on terms and conditions for their businesses, such as who to sell tickets to or who to allow onto their premises. But forcing employees to be vaccinated would be illegal, pointed out ethics council Vice-Chairman Volker Lipp.

Council members spoke out in favor of equality and solidarity. "It might be more helpful, at least while we're still struggling with lockdowns and struggling with a very heavy wave of the pandemic, to focus on what keeps us together. And that's a joint effort against the pandemic," Council head Alena Buyx suggested.

The Ethics Council members are appointed by the German president to advise policy makers. The council's proposals are not binding.