Vaccination could become mandatory in Germany from February, Angela Merkel has said, as she announced what her successor as chancellor, Olaf Scholz, described as “a lockdown of the unvaccinated”.
As more EU countries confirmed cases of the Omicron variant, which the bloc’s health agency said could make up more than half of all infections on the continent within months, Merkel described the situation as “very serious”.
Meeting with Scholz and Germany’s 16 state leaders for emergency talks on Thursday on tougher measures to stem rocketing Covid cases, the outgoing chancellor said an “act of national solidarity” was required.
“We have understood that the situation is very serious and that we want to take further measures in addition to those already taken,” she said. “To do this, the fourth wave must be broken, and this has not yet been achieved.”
Daily new infections in Germany have broken records in recent weeks, with many hospitals operating at or over capacity. Authorities said 73,209 new cases were recorded in the past 24 hours. Deaths have surged from a rolling seven-day average of just over 10 a day in August to nearly 300 this week.
Merkel said Germany’s ethics council would issue formal guidance on a vaccine mandate, and the Bundestag would vote on the legislation by the end of the year. If passed, the rule would come into force from February.
“Given the situation, I think it is appropriate to adopt compulsory vaccination,” said Merkel, who is due hand over to Scholz next week.
The move would follow the example of neighbouring Austria, which is planning mandatory vaccinations from February. Greece also announced mandatory jabs for the over-60s, with unvaccinated people facing fines if they fail to comply.
Merkel also announced a blanket ban on people who have not been vaccinated or recovered from Covid entering bars, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and other leisure venues, as well as non-essential shops and Christmas markets. In areas where the incidence rate exceeds 350 per 100,000 people, discos and nightclubs will close.
Private gatherings will be limited to 50 people indoors and 200 outdoors, providing everyone involved has been vaccinated or recovered. But if there are unvaccinated people in the mix, households may invite a maximum of two outside guests, not including children, Merkel said. Masks are to become compulsory in schools.
The lockdown measures are expected to be approved by MPs in the coming days and will take effect immediately afterwards.
Experts have blamed the fourth wave on Germany’s relatively low vaccination rate of about 68%. For comparison, Spain has fully vaccinated 79% of its population and Portugal 86%.
“From the point of view of intensive and emergency medicine, the pandemic situation has never been as threatening and serious as it is today,” Germany’s intensive care association said.
Merkel’s outgoing government had previously ruled out mandatory vaccination, but the measure has since won broad political backing. “We don’t have enough vaccinated people,” Scholz said after the meeting. “We now know that this has consequences.”
Authorities in Norway said the new variant had been detected in one person out of more than 50 who tested positive for Covid after an office Christmas dinner party in an Oslo restaurant on Friday, and they expected more cases to follow.
The Norwegian government reintroduced some restrictions to cope with the emergence of the Omicron variant, including testing all travellers arriving in Norway within 24 hours of arrival, whether vaccinated or not.
France announced its first Omicron case on the mainland, in an unvaccinated man from the greater Paris region recently returned from a trip to Nigeria, and said it was awaiting the results of sequencing tests on his wife, who had also tested positive, to see if she was also infected with the variant.
Regional authorities in Madrid said they had detected Spain’s first domestic Omicron case, in a vaccinated person who had not travelled to any countries considered at risk or met anyone who had, and were investigating two other similar suspected cases.
Dutch health authorities called for pre-flight tests for all travel from outside the EU after it emerged that almost all of the 62 passengers who tested positive after arriving on two flights from South Africa on 26 November, including those with the variant, were fully vaccinated.