ANALYSIS: Will Germany introduce a vaccine mandate this year?

The German government will vote on the introduction of a general Covid vaccine mandate in April. But with numerous bills competing in the Bundestag, will any of them be able to get enough support to pass?

Vaccine sceptic
"Vaccine mandate? No thanks," reads a sticker on the back of a man's jacket at an anti-vax demo in Berlin on March 18th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

Germany has been discussing the product of a population-wide vaccine mandate since November 2021, but progress on the issue has been incredibly slow.

A brief review of the first debate on the mandate in the Bundestag on Thursday gives an indication of why. 

A number of different parliamentary factions and alliances have formed around different views on the controversial topic. Some are calling for a more hard-line version of the mandate, others calling for a softer version, and some reject the idea entirely. 

Buzzing away in the background, there are also fundamental disagreements around more practical questions, such as whether to introduce a vaccine register or track the vaccinations a different way, such as through insurance companies.

READ ALSO: German parliament to vote on general vaccine mandate in April

As politicians took to the podium to make their speeches on Thursday, there were signs that the past few months have only solidified these positions.

If the numbers of the cross-party factions remain the same until the vote in April, there will be no majority for any of the proposals, which could ultimately mean no general mandate.

This would clearly be seen as win by those against a mandate and would come as a major blow to the traffic-light coalition, who have struggled to unify around any one plan. 

But it remains to be seen whether some pro-mandate MPs could modify their positions to ensure that at least one version of the general mandate succeeds.

Here’s what the situation looks like right now. 

What proposals are on the table?

There are currently two bills in favour of general vaccine mandates competing for votes in parliament.

The first is a general mandate for all over-18s put forward by a group of SPD, FDP and Green Party politicians. If this bill passes, all adults who have lived in Germany for at least six months would have to provide proof of full vaccination or recovery after October 1st this year. There would be exceptions for under-18s and anyone with a medical condition or those for whom vaccination is not recommended, such as women in the first three months of pregnancy. Details of the bill would be reviewed every three months and the legislation would expire at the end of 2023. 

The second is a proposal for a vaccine mandate for over-50s and a mandatory consultation for all other adults. This bill was put forward by a cross-party group of MPs surrounding FDP health expert Andrew Ullmann, including a number of SPD and Green Party politicians. If passed, all over-18s would have to provide proof a medical consultation or vaccination certificate by September 15th, while over-50s would be required to provide proof of vaccination or recovery by this date. 

Elderly man vaccination

An elderly man receives his Covid vaccination in Springe, Lower Saxony. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Ole Spata

MPs will also consider a third bill put forward by the FDP’s Wolfgang Kubicki, the Left Party’s Sahra Wagenknecht and a handful of other MPs from the CDU/CSU, Left Party and Green Party. This bill rejects the idea of a vaccine mandate and proposes a number of other measures to improve the take-up of vaccines instead. These include: investigating the current immunity status of the population and the improvements needed to ease the burden on hospitals; writing to citizens personally to invite them to a vaccination appointment; offering multilingual advice centres and stepping up targeted promotion campaigns, particularly in community groups, sports clubs and religious centres. 

Have the opposition parties put anything forward?

As well as bills setting out positions and plans for the mandate (or lack of one), there are also two opposition motions up for consideration.

Some CSU and CDU MPs have already indicated support for one or more of the bills put forward, but the conservatives have also put forward their own draft law. This draft envisions the establishment of a national vaccine register to provide accurate data on the current vaccination status of different population groups and individuals. It also foresees a reactivation of the vaccination campaign to target hard-to-reach groups, the expansion of vaccination infrastructure and an increased offer in places like vets and dentists, and the potential for a “vaccine mechanism” if a more worrying variant comes along. This mechanism would allow the introduction of a targeted vaccine mandate for certain groups such as elderly people and key workers.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has also put forward a draft. This draft rejects a vaccine mandate as “disproportionate” and also calls for the current vaccine mandate for health workers to be scrapped. 

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s Covid vaccine mandate for health staff

What are the arguments for each position?

Those in favour of a wide-ranging mandate for adults say that it’s the only way to prevent hard lockdowns and restrictions come autumn, when experts argue there’s serious danger of the health services becoming overburdened. 

While the slightly milder Omicron variant is dominant, now is the time to protect the population against newer, more harmful variants, they argue.

“The probability that we won’t face any difficulties in battling the corona pandemic in autumn is almost zero,” Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) argued in the Bundestag debate. “It’s about as likely as autumn never arriving. We have to prepare.” 

Others argued that it was unfair for a small percentage of anti-vaxxers to impede the freedom of everyone else. Emilia Fester (Greens), the youngest MP in the Bundestag, addressed her comments to the AfD in the debate, saying: “If they and their ‘friends of freedom’ had simply allowed themselves to be vaccinated at a time when most of us were so sensible and took this simple step, we would now have our freedom back again.” 

Emilia Fester

Green Party MP Emilia Fester speaks at the vaccine mandate debate on March 17th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

Those pushing for a more targeted version of the vaccine mandate say that the severity of Covid-19 differs among different segments of the population. While most younger people tend to have a relatively mild case of Covid, they say, unvaccinated over-50s are particularly at risk of severe illness and even death.

There are also some key differences between the perspectives of the two groups lobbying against a vaccine mandate.

The group led by Wolfgang Kubicki (FDP) acknowledge the value of vaccination but argue that the decision should be made by individuals rather than the state. In contrast, the AfD motion questions whether vaccines are useful in the fight against Covid at all.

“An overload of hospitals endangering the health system has never existed, does not exist, and is not imminent,” claimed AfD leader Alice Weidel in the Bundestag debate. “There is no constitutionally permissible justification for the introduction of a general vaccination mandate.” 

READ ALSO: ‘Doubtful’: German government rows over general vaccine mandate

Who could change in the run-up to April?

With the house splintering into a number of different factions, MPs from pro-mandate groups may manage to secure some last-minute support for their particular bill.

The most likely compromise is the bill put forward by FDP health expert Andrew Ullmann, which envisions an over-50s mandate and an obligatory medical consultation for everyone else.

If the group of traffic-light MPs behind this piece of legislation want to get it passed, they’ll probably have to rely on support from the opposition CDU/CSU parties. 

One way they could do this is to tweak their draft to include the conservative’s proposal for a national vaccine register, which could bring undecided opposition MPs on board.

The conservatives are also likely to come under pressure from the heads of the federal states, who have been pushing for a general vaccine mandate since November. 

While federal CDU/CSU MPs may be content to see the traffic light’s plans fall by the wayside, their counterparts in the 16 states wouldn’t be happy about that.

Since the conservatives are in government in a majority of federal states, this pressure could be enough to force a switch in allegiance from the CDU draft law to the draft by the FDP’s Ullmann.

The fact that MPs aren’t being asked to vote with their parties and are instead free to decide for themselves could also give CDU and CSU parliamentarians the push to work across party lines. 

The same can’t be said for the two groups of anti-mandate MPs. Since most parliamentarians are unwilling to work with the far-right AfD, it’s likely that these competing groups will remain firmly in their respective camps come April. 

READ ALSO: What would a general vaccine mandate mean for the German job market?

Useful vocabularly

draft law – (der) Gesetzentwurf

motion – (der) Antrag

(parliamentary) vote – (die) Abstimmung 

to argue – argumentieren 

to justify – rechtfertigen 

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OPINION: Germany’s unfair school system entrenches inequality

Pupils in Germany are funnelled off into different schools at the age of 11, which map out whether they go down an academic or vocational route. But this model is unfair and disastrous for social mobility, says James Jackson.

OPINION: Germany's unfair school system entrenches inequality

This month, 11-year-olds in Germany will receive a letter which will influence their future more than perhaps anything else. The “letter of recommendation” from their teacher decides more than anything else whether the children go on to study academic subjects or more practical ones. 

Perhaps the biggest German success story in recent years, the BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, might not have happened due to the inequalities of opportunity in this system. Uğur Şahin, a scientific genius to whom the human race will be eternally grateful, wasn’t recommended to Gymnasium. His teacher didn’t recognise his obvious intelligence and his parents didn’t know how to argue against this. If it wasn’t due to the intervention of a German neighbour, it is quite possible the BioNTech vaccine wouldn’t have happened. 

When this story came out, a hashtag about being a good neighbour trended on German social media. But rather than being a good neighbour, wouldn’t an improvement be to get rid of an arbitrary system that can condemn bright children through oversight, luck, prejudice or malice? 

READ ALSO: What parents should know about German schools

‘Disastrous’ for social mobility

This idea of streaming children into different schools based on ability may sound meritocratic, similar to the grammar school system beloved by many conservatives. But the German school system is grammar schools on steroids, and it has had disastrous results for social mobility; Germany has some of the worst in the developed world, with only 15 percent of young people whose parents didn’t go to university end up graduating from one, four times less likely than those with parents who did. It’s not just about education: Germany is second to last in the OECD in how many people rise from the bottom 25 percent to the top 25 percent economically too. Reports make clear these discrepancies aren’t just about the streaming system – low uptake in early childhood education and below EU average education funding also play a role.

The school system differs slightly across each state but basically there are three types: Gymnasium, Hauptschule and Realschule. Gymnasium are the most academic and pupils go on to do Abitur, which is usually needed to get into university. Students can transfer from one to another, but by most accounts it isn’t easy. And while Gymnasiums and school streaming or tracking does exist in other countries, Germany has the strictest form of it. 

PODCAST: The big problem with the German school system and can you pass a citizenship test?

Rather than being based on an exam such as Britain’s 11+ model (which itself benefits parents with the means to hire private tutors or the time and education to help their children study) it is based arbitrarily on the opinion of an individual teacher, who parents often make efforts to impress. Yes, teachers in Germany are highly trained professionals, but all people have unconscious biases and some people have conscious ones. Blind studies show that children with non-German or working class names like Kevin receive worse marks for the same piece of schoolwork. 

It seems bizarre and unfair to make the decision at such an early age when children develop at different speeds – that’s if you need to make such a decision at all. Some of the school systems with the best results in the world such as Finland’s have a totally comprehensive system with no streaming at all. 

Due to reforms in recent decades, the letter of recommendation is only compulsory in three German federal states, this isn’t necessarily a huge improvement. A 2019 study “The Many (Subtle) Ways Parents Game the System” showed how parents with more social capital, themselves usually white German and better-off, can get their children into Gymnasium regardless of grades and a letter of recommendation. Is giving pushy parents even more opportunities necessarily an improvement?

Children in primary school in Germany.

Children in primary school in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

Supporters of the system say that not everyone is suited to academic study and we should allow for all kinds of different paths in life, and point to pretty decent income equality in the country. I agree, someone who gets technical qualifications being able to earn a decent living is something to be proud of in the German system, but why should that be determined by who your parents are? It doesn’t give working class people the opportunity to rise to the top – and changing careers in Germany is notoriously hard. 

As it stands, the system appears quasi-feudal to an outsider, with people passing their societal position onto their children especially in a system where academic titles carry so much prestige that politicians plagiarising PhDs is a scandal. And while most middle class Germans I’ve met are pretty honest that their country could do more to integrate immigrants, there can be a pretty prickly response if you bring up class differences, despite the plethora of Von’s and Zu’s in media, politics and industry. I received far more backlash online with this topic than any other, from education professionals with academic titles galore. It made me wonder, if a teacher is going to relentlessly savage a professional journalist for expressing a critical opinion, how will they treat a misbehaving student?

Education reforms are ‘controversial’

There have been attempts to introduce comprehensive schools or “Gesamtschulen” in various states, but they have hit major roadblocks from furious parents – one might argue they felt their privilege threatened. Education reforms are massively controversial in Germany generally. A striking proportion of Referendums and Citizen’s Initiatives across the country have been about repealing educational reforms, especially those which simplify the German language. No wonder approaching it is political suicide, mostly avoided even by progressive parties like the Left and the Greens. Educated people are a powerful constituency, with more money, representation and power. Meanwhile those disadvantaged are less likely to vote or even be able to vote. 

READ ALSO: What foreign parents really think about German schools

For a country that styles itself as the Land of “Dichter und Denker” (poets and thinkers) it’s no surprise that Germany takes education so seriously. Education also played an important role in the development of the country as the so-called Bildungsbürger (member of the educated classes) gained a liberalising influence in the mid 18th Century. But the results weren’t always stellar. The so-called PISA shock of 2008 was the first time that students across Europe were compared with each other, and Germany performed poorly. Though the average attainment has improved since then, it still isn’t as spectacular as many Gymnasium fans think, scoring about the same as the UK which has mostly comprehensive schools, while scoring desperately low for equity in social backgrounds. 

Education and what role the state should play in it is an emotive question. To me, it seems egregious that the state is funding a system that is shown to entrench social and educational inequality and segregate people based on what is more often than not their social class. The philosopher of science Stephen Jay Gould wrote “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” In Germany, he may have written that they were consigned to Hauptschule because of their name instead.