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Fact check: Could Germany legally introduce compulsory vaccination?

A doctor prepares a dose of Covid vaccine
A doctor prepares a vaccination in his family doctor's office. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow
The increasingly serious Covid situation in Germany has provoked discussion on the topic of mandatory vaccinations - but some critics say compulsory jabs would go against the constitution. We take a look at the facts.

What are mandatory vaccines and why are they being discussed?

In Germany, the fourth wave of the Covid pandemic is seeing record-breaking 7-day incidence numbers and daily infection rates, despite the fact that almost 70 percent of the population are now fully vaccinated. 

It has been suggested that the worsening crisis could be slowed down if everyone were to get their Covid jabs. Therefore, the subject of compulsory vaccinations – the idea that people would be legally obliged to get vaccinated – is appearing again and again in the headlines.  

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Last Thursday, the heads of the 16 federal states asked the federal government to introduce mandatory vaccination for workers in certain institutions, such as hospitals and nursing homes, and for everyone who has contact with people who are particularly at risk. 

Health minister Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) said on Monday that the Federal Ministry of Health would draft a bill to introduce compulsory vaccinations for medical and nursing professions, which will apply to employees in hospitals, care homes and mobile care services.

Are mandatory Covid vaccines being considered for the general population?

Political opinion on a general vaccine obligation in Germany remains sharply divided, with some politicians already saying that obligatory vaccines for the general population should not be ruled out, while others are strongly opposed to the idea. 

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Bild Live that there will be no obligatory vaccine in Germany, “because we don’t think it’s necessary and because we think it’s difficult from a constitutional point of view.” 

The FDP health spokesperson Christine Aschenberg-Dugnus also rejected the idea. In an interview with Bild, she said “putting the general vaccination obligation in the room as a threat does not help anyone,” in reference to Bavaria’s Minister President Markus Söder (CSU).    

In Austria, where a strict three week lockdown has been put in place, vaccines will be required for all residents from February 1st, 2022. These new measures make Austria the first country in Europe to enforce mandatory vaccinations, and have already been met with widespread protests and fierce backlash from opposition parties.

READ ALSO: German political leaders refuse to rule out compulsory Covid vaccination

What does the law say?

In general, the right to choose whether or not to be vaccinated against a disease is a personal decision which is protected by the provision 2(2) of the German Constitution: the right to life and physical integrity. 

However, as with all legal rights, this can potentially be limited by other competing concerns. In this case, a legitimate purpose would be, for example, to prevent the health care system from being overburdened. 

The former head of the German constitutional court, Hans-Jürgen Papier, told the Handelsblatt that “compulsory vaccination would be a serious intervention”.

“It would have to be clarified, for example, how many people in these areas have not yet been vaccinated… and it would have to be checked whether vaccinating the staff would actually minimise or even eliminate the risk of infection,” he explained. “After all, the aim is to achieve considerable protection of others, especially those in need of care or children. If this is not or not sufficiently ensured, despite vaccination, then I would have strong reservations.”

Protest against Covid measures in Berlin
A demonstrator at a Berlin rally against Covid measures holds a sign saying “Hands off the constitution”. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Paul Zinken

But compulsory vaccinations are not without precedent in Germany.

A compulsory vaccination against smallpox was introduced in 1874 by the Imperial Vaccination Act. This compulsory vaccination continued to apply for several decades and was only gradually abolished from the 1970s onwards. 

A more recent example of mandatory vaccination legislation is the Measles Protection Act. Under this act, the measles vaccination has been mandatory, for example for children and caregivers in daycare centers and schools, for people living in community facilities, and for certain medical personnel, since March 2020. The measles vaccination obligation is linked to regular presence in certain facilities, where the risk of infection is higher. 

What could happen to those who refuse to get vaccinated?

In the case of the compulsory measles vaccination, the health authority can issue people with bans on certain activities and from entering certain facilities.

It is also possible that persons concerned could be dismissed from their job and that fines could be levied under the Infection Protection Act.

What is the situation in other European countries?

In France, compulsory vaccinations have been in force since mid-September for healthcare personnel, i.e., employees of hospitals, retirement or nursing homes, care services, and employees of emergency services and fire departments.

The Belgian government launched compulsory vaccinations for healthcare personnel in mid-November.

In Italy, vaccination has been compulsory for medical professionals since the end of May, and since mid-October for employees of nursing homes. Hundreds of medical professionals who refused to be vaccinated have since been suspended from duty.

In Greece, Covid vaccination has been compulsory for nursing home staff since mid-August, and came into force for the healthcare sector on September 1st.

Austria will be the first country in the EU to introduce a general Covid vaccination requirement from February 2022.

The Netherlands and Switzerland do not yet have compulsory vaccination for certain occupational groups.

READ ALSO: Mandatory jabs and restrictions: How Europe is responding to the new wave of Covid


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