Germany passes Covid-19 vaccine requirement for health workers
Germany on Friday passed legislation requiring healthcare workers to get inoculated against Covid-19, a first step toward possible mandatory jabs for all adults.
A large majority of Bundestag MPs voted for the measure requiring staff at hospitals, doctors' offices and care homes to be fully vaccinated.
The Bundesrat or upper house passed the bill later Friday following similar moves by France, Italy, Britain and Greece.
Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, who took office this week with the new government under Olaf Scholz, asked deputies from across the political spectrum to support the measure to protect vulnerable groups.
"The pandemic is a mission for us all - this isn't a moment for party politics," he told the chamber before the vote.
He said he hoped Germany could break a vicious fourth wave of the outbreak by the end of the month so that people could visit their families over the holidays.
"That's what we're fighting for," he said, stressing the need to slow the spread of the Delta virus variant and stop the Omicron strain from gaining ground.
Under the new plans, people who work in clinics, surgeries and care homes will have to present proof of full vaccination - or a doctor's note explaining why they can't get vaccinated - by March 15th next year.
From March 16th, anyone wanting to work in medicine or care in Germany will need to provide proof of vaccination before starting their jobs.
Speaking to Spiegel on Friday, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said people who disobeyed the law would be punished with fines rather than prison sentences.
"Nobody will have to go to prison," he told reporters, adding that the fines would be set high enough to be "effective".
He also spoke out in favour of extending the vaccine mandate to include teachers and people who work in nurseries.
Scholz, who took power on Wednesday, has come out strongly in favour of mandatory vaccinations after the voluntary campaign fell short with just under 70 percent of the population fully inoculated. Around 21 percent have received a booster shot.
Expanding the mandate to the general public would see the country follow the example of neighbouring Austria, which is requiring vaccinations from February.
Majority supports mandate
Angela Merkel's previous government had always ruled out mandatory vaccination, but calls for action have grown louder in Germany as infection rates hit record highs and hospitals buckle under the strain.
Around 89 percent of German care home staff and 90 percent of medical workers are fully vaccinated, according to an official estimate from October, but with wide variation among regions.
"Mandatory vaccination is a really difficult issue," Markus Heim, a senior doctor in the intensive care unit at Munich's Rechts der Isar hospital, told AFP.
"Everyone who works in the medical sector wants more people to be inoculated and if that can be achieved by requiring it then a lot of people working here would support it."
Mandatory jabs are now backed by politicians from across the spectrum and Scholz aims to have a policy in force by February or March to head off a possible fifth wave of infections.
A clear majority of Germans also supports the move, with 68 percent telling public broadcaster ZDF in a poll published Friday that they support a general requirement.
The country recorded 61,288 new infections on Friday and 484 deaths, according to the Robert Koch Institute health agency. Nearly 105,000 people have died with coronavirus.
Beyond the new vaccine mandate, the amendments to the Infection Protection Act are intended to equip states with the powers they need to fight the current Covid wave.
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These include new clauses that will allow states to close restaurants, bars and clubs and ban large gatherings and events when Covid incidences are particularly high.
"We're providing the means to break the Delta wave regionally and nationally, and we’re doing all we can to prevent a powerful Omicron variant,” Lauterbach told parliamentarians ahead of the vote.
To hit government vaccine targets, the government will also permit vets, dentists and pharmacists to administer Covid jabs, as long as they recieve medical training beforehand.
In addition, people on 'Kurzarbeit' will in future recieve more generous payouts under government plans to top up the wages of employees who have had their working hours reduced during the pandemic.