European governments are ramping up the pressure on people to get vaccinated against Covid-19 by making life progressively harder for those who have not done so, but few are opting to make jabs compulsory – and one country that plans to is now having doubts.
As the Omicron variant sweeps across much of the continent, causing record infection numbers in almost a dozen countries from Finland to Greece, boosting vaccination tallies has become a priority to ease pressure on overburdened health services.
Italy, where teachers and health workers must already be vaccinated and all other employees must be jabbed or test negative to enter the workplace, this week made vaccination compulsory for about 28 million people aged over 50.
“We want to slow down the curve of contagion and encourage Italians who have not yet been vaccinated to do so,” said the prime minister, Mario Draghi. “These rules aim to keep hospitals functioning well and schools and business activities open.”
The new measures oblige people over 50 who do not work to get vaccinated, while from 15 February, those who do have jobs will have to show a vaccine pass to enter the workplace, removing the option of taking a coronavirus test.
They follow a government decision late last month that from 10 January, a vaccine pass would be required to use public transport as well as to access hotels, restaurants and gyms – again, excluding those who can only show a negative test.
The mandate makes Italy one of only three EU states to compel an entire age group to get jabbed, though several have made vaccines compulsory in high-risk sectors such as healthcare. It divided the cabinet, with the far-right League saying it had “no scientific foundation” since most people in hospital with Covid were over 60.
Greece, which has also barred unvaccinated people from indoor spaces including restaurants, cinemas, museums and gyms, said in late November it would make vaccinations mandatory from 16 January for people aged 60 and over, more than half a million of whom had yet to get vaccinated.
Those who fail to comply face a recurring monthly fine of €100. The prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said it was a tough decision but was needed to protect elderly people who had failed to get the jab. “It’s the price to pay for health,” he said. Syriza, the main opposition party, criticised it as being punitive and financially excessive.
In Austria, however, where vaccination is due to become mandatory for everyone aged over 14 from 1 February, a political consensus around the plan has started to fray as some argue the nature of the Omicron variant has changed the situation.
Gerald Gartlehner, a leading virologist and previously one of the country’s more cautious voices, said this week it was “probably time to reassess” mandatory jabs, since the new, highly transmissible variant would create unprecedented levels of immunity.
In an interview just after Christmas, the federal minister for the institution, Karoline Edtstadler, also hinted a population-wide mandate may need to be rethought if data could not prove the effectiveness of available vaccines against Omicron.
The Social Democrat governor of Burgenland state, Hans Peter Doskozil, said this week cross-party support for a vaccine mandate was “crumbling away at a federal level”, and several commentators have suggested the government may be quietly preparing the ground for a U-turn.
The ruling three-party coalition government, however, insists it continues to favour the draft law, which needs approval only by a simple majority in the health committees of the upper and lower houses of the Austrian parliament.
Sceptics say the real difficulty with compulsory vaccinations is likely to start after the law comes into effect: tracing those who decline to be jabbed would require merging two different databases, which comes with further legal and logistical obstacles.
“A government that pushes to make vaccinations mandatory but cannot execute such a law makes a mockery of a general mandate”, the health spokesperson of Austria’s liberal NEOS party, Gerald Loacker, said.
France’s prime minister, Jean Castex, hinted at the same concern, saying on Thursday that making vaccination compulsory would not be helpful because it was likely ultimately to create more problems than solutions.
“We already have some difficulties checking health pass compliance,” Castex told French television. “Those difficulties would become even bigger if we made vaccination compulsory.” Those countries that had moved towards compulsory vaccinations had lower vaccination rates than France, he said.
On Thursday, the lower house of parliament passed a bill making it obligatory to have a full course of vaccination to take a plane or long-distance train, eat in a restaurant, drink in a cafe or bar, and visit museums, the cinema and sports venues. A recent test or proof of recovery will no longer be valid.
The vote, which sends the draft law to the senate, followed three days of ill-tempered debate sparked by Emmanuel Macron’s warning that he wanted to “piss off” or “put in the shit” unvaccinated people by making their lives increasingly difficult.
The president’s coarse language, although widely seen as politically calculated to tap into increasing public frustration with unvaccinated people in a country where more than 90% of over-12s have received at least two doses, caused a furore.
Germany’s new government has said it aims to follow Austria down the path of compulsory vaccination but has so far initiated little public debate on the question or made much headway with the necessary legal groundwork.
A breakaway group of MPs from the Free Democratic party, one of the three parties in the country’s “traffic light” coalition government, on Thursday submitted a motion to reject mandatory jabs outright.