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With omicron driving up cases, German MPs have debated compulsory COVID-19 vaccinations. Many lawmakers hope a mandate will boost the vaccination rate, while others want to bin the idea.
Lawmakers in Germany's Bundestag debated the possibility of introducing mandatory vaccines against coronavirus on Wednesday as the country continues to break daily records of infections.
The debate over the vaccine mandate has evolved over the last year, with major figures such as Chancellor Olaf Scholz declaring their support for the idea after initially rejecting it.
But the coalition government does not want to impose a decision from above, but rather let lawmakers arrive at their preferred option through debate.
There were several options on the table — such as a universal mandate for all eligible adults over 18, a mandate for only those over 50 or especially vulnerable, or a ban on compulsory vaccination altogether.
Dagmar Schmidt of Chancellor Scholz's center-left SPD opened the debate by calling on her colleagues to use the best tool in their arsenal, vaccines, to stop the pandemic from continuing in 2023.
Advocating for a universal mandate, Schmidt said it was a relatively gentle way to protect those who cannot be vaccinated or have pre-existing vulnerabilities. Waiting for herd immunity, Schmidt said, "would lead to many dead, many ill, and many patients suffering from long COVID."
Kirsten Kappert-Gonther, a health expert for the Green Party, which is part of the ruling coalition, also backed mandatory vaccination for all residents 18 and over.
"Vaccination is the way out of the pandemic," she said, adding that making jabs compulsory only for people over 50 was "counterproductive" and would add credence to the idea that young healthy people do not need to get vaccinated.
Straying somewhat from the other two ruling parties, Marco Buschmann of the Free Democrats (FDP) spoke in favor of mandatory vaccination only for those over 50 years old, like the one in Italy.
Buschmann, who is also Scholz's justice minister, said there must be an "easier way" to move past the pandemic without making every adult receive a jab.
Not every politician from the three coalition parties supported making vaccines mandatory however. Wolfgang Kubicki, the vice president of the Bundestag and a member of the FDP, said that while he personally supported vaccines, it was "problematic" for the state to force citizens to immunize themselves.
Speaking to DW, FDP lawmaker Andrew Ullman highlighted the complexity of the debate, saying it encompassed "medical ethics and ethics of conscience." He further explained that although the coalition parties had not supported a vaccine mandate when they were elected in September, "the data has changed. The situation in the world and especially in Germany, has changed due to the delta variant in December, and especially now with the omicron variant."
Tino Sorge, a lawmaker for the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which is now in opposition after 16 years in power under former Chancellor Angela Merkel, used his turn to speak to criticize the current government.
He accused Scholz and his Health Minister Karl Lauterbach of "hiding" behind the debate instead of showing leadership. "You're hoping that someone else will present you with a plan for mandatory vaccination if you wait long enough," he said.
On Twitter, Lauterbach accused Sorge and the CDU of "playing party politics" and not participating in the debate.
Despite Lauterbach's accusation, the CDU doubled down on their criticism, with lawmaker Günter Krings saying the debate was a sign of the government "evading responsibility" for COVID-19 policymaking.
Tino Chrupalla, co-chair of the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), called it "scandalous" that unvaccinated members of the Bundestag were not allowed to enter the body's main chamber. He warned that "our constitution is being destroyed" by pandemic restrictions.
The AfD had earlier in January presented a proposal to ban vaccine mandates.
Outside of the Bundestag, Berlin police reported that fewer anti-vaccine demonstrators had shown up than expected.
Organizers had boasted that some 10,000 people had signaled their desire to protest online. However, only some 600 protesters had gathered in the government quarter, part of which was cordoned off, to demand lawmakers nix mandatory vaccination.
Another 300 or so had gathered near the Berlin Cathedral, officials said, adding that a few protesters had been detained for minor offenses, including not wearing masks.
Later on Wednesday, police said that they estimated a total of 1,500 anti-vaccine and anti-restriction protestors had been active in the city throughout the day.
Popular support for mandatory vaccines has grown over time. Polls went from no clear sign either way in the summer of 2021 to clear support for the mandate by November.
A recent YouGov survey commissioned by German news agency DPA showed that some 60% of Germans support the introduction of compulsory vaccinations against 32% who were against.
Just under 75% of people in Germany are fully vaccinated — and slightly over half have received a booster shot — placing Germany behind other countries in Western Europe. The rate of vaccination varies significantly based on region, however.
Opponents of vaccines have continued to defy hygiene rules, taking to the streets in unofficial protests that have frequently seen violence and participation by the far-right.
ab,es/msh (EPD, dpa)