Dr Andrew Ullmann is a physician and member of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), which is part of the new government coalition along with the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens. Ullmann has been serving as a member of the Bundestag from Würzburg in Bavaria since 2017.
The Local asked the health expert about Germany’s plans to try and increase the number of vaccinations, Covid rules and when the pandemic might come to an end in Germany.
The Local: German politicians were previously against introducing mandatory vaccinations in Germany. Why is this being considered now?
Andrew Ullmann: Let me explain first of all: when we are talking about mandatory vaccinations in the German language (Impfpflicht), with the laws we’re debating, we are talking about proof of vaccination, and not a forceful jab into the arm. This can only be done with the consent of the person. So they have to prove that they are vaccinated. If they cannot prove they’re vaccinated they might be fined, depending – in the future – where they work.
This is the law that we have passed in the Bundestag – we’re going to introduce institutionalised mandatory vaccinations, meaning that hospitals or outpatient care facilities – people that work there as healthcare professionals but also, for example, the janitor or other person employed, have to prove that they are vaccinated otherwise they cannot work there.
Going back to your question – I was always against mandatory vaccination. But this was at a time when the healthcare system wasn’t overwhelmed. Now for the first time in Germany in the pandemic we see hospitals that have to move their patients, for example from Bavaria to northern Germany, or from Saxony to west Germany. That is the point where I think mandatory vaccinations have to be put in place, and this is why the first step is the institutionalised vaccines.
So just to clarify – do you think Germany needs, at this point, some kind of mandatory vaccination?
Absolutely, I think we have to also consider the escalation steps possible.
What are the steps being taken now for a general vaccine mandate vote in the Bundestag?
Right now we’re debating across the board with different parties because they (vaccine mandates) are an ethical or conscious thought – how far are we willing to go for the general mandatory vaccination? Meaning – are we open to vaccinating everyone beyond the age of five or are we going to opt for selective regional, temporary vaccination mandate? This is still part of the discussion that will be continued in smaller groups over the holidays. And we’ll likely come up with various proposals in January where – independent of the party affiliation – different groups will evolve.
So it may be that, for instance, over 50-year-olds in Germany will have to be vaccinated, or over 60-year-olds?
Yes that’s an example, this is one thought. And this could just be in Saxony or Thuringia or Bavaria and not in northern Germany, for example in Schleswig-Holstein. The variation is wide. Even in my own party we have a groare opposingup of people who any kind of mandatory vaccinations all the way over to (those calling for a) general vaccine mandate.
Do you think there will be a majority in German parliament for a general vaccine mandate? Could you see that happening?
I wouldn’t rule it out but it’s hard to say right now. We have just started our work in parliament. We still have to sort out our opinions.
Do you think mandatory jabs can actually work and convince people to get vaccinated?
I think so, yes, to the part that the decision making is taken away from those persons who are hesitant to get vaccinated. They say: ‘Now I have no choice so I get vaccinated’. I think that applies to a significant proportion of people who are not vaccinated yet. On the other side we also have to realise that fully vaccinated people, as they are now with two jabs, are not medically fully vaccinated because you need the third (booster) jab to have better immunity against the virus, so as not to become ill.
In the last months we saw repeated warnings from experts that Germany did not have enough vaccination coverage to get through winter. Do you think the last government should have considered a vaccine mandate earlier, or other steps?
I would go for the latter. I think the communication of the government – specifically – the public institution who explain to people why vaccinations are important – I think they did a very poor job. Back in the 80s and 90s they did a very good job with (getting information out on) HIV and Aids, but this time, they did a very poor job. And the communication from the Ministry of Health and RKI could have been better, because there were uncertainties about vaccines – I’l remind you of the AstraZeneca disaster, for example – that really affected the vaccine strategy.
Right now we have to look forward. I’m happy to see how people are lining up for vaccines and the third jab. I think communities should come up with good ideas to make vaccinations very lucrative. I would even go so far to say that incentives like a free Bratwurst or Glühwein – without alcohol of course – during Christmas would motivate people to get their third jabs or vaccinations in the first place.
Germany recently tightened Covid-19 restrictions like the nationwide 2G rules, and contact restrictions for the unvaccinated. Are these rules enough to get the fourth wave under control?
I think it has to be very clear that all modules of infection prevention have to be used – contact precautions, respiratory precautions and vaccinations. We need all three to lower the transmission of disease.
Should there be contact restrictions for vaccinated people at the moment?
Yes – not in general but for those who have tested positive for Covid-19. They have to be isolated. We have to be aware that despite vaccination you can test positive for the virus and transmit the virus to other people. I think 2G plus – when vaccinated or recovered people get tested – is a good idea especially when families get together. Those rapid tests should be done on on a daily basis to ensure there will be no family transmission of the disease.
We’ve heard various politicians and health experts in Germany advising people not to socialise too much. Do you think people should be cutting down on contact?
I think people have to cut down on personal contact. I would agree on that. This can only be a recommendation. We’ve been in a pandemic for almost two years now, there’s a certain kind of fatigue in the population in all these recommendations. I’m afraid that not many people would listen to those recommendations.
Do you think there could be more Covid restrictions over the festive period? For instance Lower Saxony’s state leader has put forward the idea of an extended ‘Christmas break’ (a mini lockdown).
I would never rule it out but I would like to see the evidence that it’s really effective, and I have not seen that.
Do you expect that Germany will bring in more travel restrictions?
I think it’s important that we have certain rules in (domestic) public transportation for example. We have mandatory mask wearing, we also have to have proof of vaccination recovery or a test when travelling by train.
If you come from a high-risk country into Germany then you have to be tested and you have to go into quarantine. I think that makes sense and it’s not a lockdown on travel. I don’t think that (a lockdown on travel) should happen. I do appreciate the fatigue in a lot of people but I think (the controls) are a necessity still today, still this winter, until we have this pandemic halfway under control.
There was hope that the pandemic would turn endemic in Germany in spring 2022. But with worries over the Omicron variant, do you think we have a longer road ahead of us?
I like to dream and hope that this virus will become endemic sometime in the next months. However, I would be very cautious about it even if the numbers are dropping January or spring time to think that the pandemic is over. Especially with Omicron – we have no idea what that means, but it could be a precursor for other strains on the way. We cannot lower our guards yet. I’m very cautious about calling for a freedom day.
But I think if we have a low incidence combined with a high vaccination rate combined with possible boosters for the new variants, then I’m optimistic we can lower our guards to a new kind of future with more freedom. This virus is very tricky and has surprised us a couple of times in the last two years.
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We edited some parts of this interview for clarification.