Germany tightens rules that target the unvaccinated and mulls vaccine mandate amid covid spike

BERLIN — With coronavirus cases surging and Germany having identified several instances of the new omicron variant, the government is using added measures to target the unvaccinated — and debating whether vaccinations should become mandatory.

Under rules announced Thursday, gatherings are limited to “one household” plus two other people, if those among them include people who are unvaccinated or who have not recently recovered from covid-19. Children younger than 14 are exempt.

Culture and leisure facilities will also be accessible only to people who can prove full vaccination or recent recovery. Nonessential retail will be subject to the same rules. Drugstores and supermarkets are exempt. In places with higher case rates, private indoor gatherings will be limited to 50 vaccinated or recovered people, or 200 if the event is outdoors.

The tightened rules came as Germany’s public health body, the Robert Koch Institute, said the country had confirmed four cases of the omicron variant. According to the institute’s weekly report, all four of these people were fully vaccinated, had just returned from South Africa and showed only mild symptoms. Eight more cases of suspected omicron are under investigation. Experts think that the number of cases of omicron in Germany may be higher.

The new variant has heightened debate in Germany about vaccination, including whether it should be mandatory.

Olaf Scholz, the incoming chancellor, announced Thursday that he would submit a proposal for a vaccine mandate to parliament, but caretaker Health Minister Jens Spahn has pushed back, saying he would vote against any compulsory coronavirus vaccinations if a bill is put to the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament.

Spahn said Friday that he had repeatedly given his word that it would not come to compulsory vaccines, but stressed that “vaccination is the only way out of the pandemic.” If Scholz’s proposed vaccine mandate were to pass, vaccinations could become mandatory by February.

Some polls suggest there is growing support in Germany for compulsory vaccination. According to the monthly Deutschlandtrend poll, 57 percent of the population now favors mandatory shots against the coronavirus, up from 46 percent in August.

More than 71 percent of Germans have received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Under the rules announced Thursday, multiple shots would be needed to maintain vaccinated status. The outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated Thursday that the person’s full vaccination status will expire nine months after being vaccinated. Reporters were told by her that booster vaccinations would be necessary.

Merkel is set to leave office next week after 16 years in power, turning over the chancellor role to Scholz, her former finance minister. Merkel stated that Germany’s pandemic struggle “depresses” her as she is about to hand over the keys.

On a single day last week, Germany recorded a record 79,051 new cases of the coronavirus. New cases remain high, with 73,209 cases reported Thursday.

Some health experts said the measures announced this week were not enough, given the spread of the new variant.

Klaus Reinhardt, president of the German Medical Association, told regional newspaper the Neue Osnabrucker Zeitung that there should be mandatory testing in addition to proof of vaccination or recent recovery in bars, restaurants and indoor events.

“We still don’t know enough about the new omicron variant. We cannot rule out that the vaccines may have a diminished effect,” Gernot Marx, head of Germany’s association for intensive care medicine DIVI, told RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland. “Because of this lack of knowledge, it’s imperative that we’re particularly careful.”

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