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COVID-19 VACCINES

Germany’s top court approves Covid vaccine mandate for health workers

Germany's highest court ruled on Thursday that the mandatory Covid-19 vaccination rule for employees in health and care sectors is constitutional.

A health worker receiving a vaccination in Stuttgart.
A health worker receiving a vaccination in Stuttgart. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd Weißbrod

From mid-March this year, health and care workers in Germany have had to prove they are vaccinated against Covid-19 or recently recovered. 

If they can’t provide this proof they face fines or even bans from working – however it is unclear how widely it has been enforced due to concerns over staff shortages. 

On Thursday the constitutional court rejected complaints against the partial vaccination mandate, saying the protection of vulnerable people outweighs any infringement of employees’ rights.

The law covers employees in hospitals as well as care homes, clinics, emergency services, doctors’ surgeries and facilities for people with disabilities. 

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

The court acknowledged that the law meant employees who don’t want to be vaccinated would have to deal with professional consequences or change their job – or even profession. 

However, the obligation to be vaccinated against Covid as a health or care worker is constitutionally justified and proportionate, according to the judges.

They said that’s because compulsory vaccination in this case is about protecting elderly and sick people. These groups are at increased risk of becoming infected by Covid-19 and are more likely to become seriously ill or die.

The protection of vulnerable groups is of “paramount importance”, the resolution states.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach welcomed Thursday’s ruling and thanked health care facilities who have already implemented the vaccine mandate. He said: “The state is obliged to protect vulnerable groups”.

Course of the pandemic doesn’t change things

According to the ruling, the development of the pandemic in Germany is no reason to change course. 

The court based its decision on the assessment of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) and medical societies, stating that it could still be assumed that a vaccination would protect against the Omicron variant.

It’s true that the protection of vaccines decreases over time, and most courses of disease are milder with the Omicron variant. Nevertheless, the institution-based vaccination obligation remains constitutional because, according to the experts, the higher risk for old and sick people has not fundamentally changed.

A vaccine mandate that would have affected more of the population in Germany was rejected by the Bundestag in a vote held in April

MPs had been allowed to vote with their conscience on the issue rather than having to vote along party lines. 

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COVID-19 RULES

How useful are Germany’s Covid restrictions?

Protective measures such as wearing a mask correctly and lockdowns can be effective in the fight against Covid, an expert commission in Germany has found. But many questions remain unanswered.

How useful are Germany's Covid restrictions?

The council of experts spent months evaluating the effects of measures imposed by the German government to help slow down the spread of Covid-19.

In the presentation of their findings on Friday, the panel said that measures like mask-wearing have had an effect, and can continue to be helpful against coronavirus.

The council said masks could be “an effective instrument”, but that there are limitations.

“An ill-fitting or not tight-fitting mask has a reduced to no effect,” said the council.

If masks are made compulsory again in the future, this should only apply indoors, because the risk of infection is higher there, the report said. 

However the experts added: “A general recommendation to wear FFP2 masks cannot be derived from the data so far.” Virologist Hendrick Streeck, who is on the panel, said that a “separate commission should look into this”.

READ ALSO: Germany’s current Covid mask rules 

On lockdowns, the experts said the usefulness of this measure depended on the infection situation. 

“When only a few people are infected, lockdown measures have a significantly stronger effect,” the report said. The longer a lockdown lasts, and the fewer people are willing to support the measure, the lesser the effect, experts added. 

Similar to to lockdown measures, contact tracing was also found to be effective in the early phases of the pandemic.

Members of the Covid expert panel Jutta Allmendinger, Hendrik Streeck, Harald Wilkoszewski and Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff speak on Friday.

Members of the Covid expert panel Jutta Allmendinger, Hendrik Streeck, Harald Wilkoszewski and Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff speak on Friday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Sommer

The report authors also said that the success of access restrictions, such as the 2G/3G measures (which mean people have to be vaccinated, recovered or tested to enter a public venue), depended on when people had had their jab or had been infected with Covid.

“The effect of 2G/3G measures is high with current variants in the first weeks after booster vaccination or recovery,” the report says. However, the protection against infection decreases significantly over time. 

In the current phase of the pandemic, it’s difficult to assess how useful these rules are, said the council. They recommended that in future, tests should be recommended as a condition of entry, regardless of vaccination status. 

Meanwhile, the evaluation concluded that risk communication in Germany was poorly used and that the information campaign to the public could have been better designed.

No statement on vaccinations

There are measures on which the committee did not make any statements, including vaccinations. Virologist Streek said that was the task of the Standing Commission on Vaccination (STIKO).

The experts were also weren’t clear on the controversial topic of school closures. Their effectiveness is “still open, despite biological plausibility and numerous studies”, the report said. The panel called for more studies on school closures.

READ ALSO: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

The researchers said that they struggled to evaluate some measures due to poor data, and urged authorities to adopt better methods and practices on that front. 

“We have a poor data situation,” said virologist Streeck. 

As Germany is preparing for possible Covid waves in autumn, the Health Ministry will be looking at the report closely.

But Greens’ health expert Janosch Dahmen said the findings were of limited significance.

“The report provides supplementary evidence, but by no means a conclusive assessment of the effect of Covid protection measures,” said Dahmen.

The completion of the report, which should have been published on June 30th, was delayed.

In the run-up, the head of the council of experts, Stefan Huster, dampened expectations for the report.

“Anyone expecting a list with a plus or a minus behind all the individual measures for ‘effective’ or ‘not effective’ will be disappointed,” Huster told Spiegel. “Our perspective is more fundamental and looks at the structures, in terms of being well prepared for a pandemic.”

The panel, which included scientists and researchers in various fields, was commissioned by the German government to carry out the research.

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