Celebrity epidemiologist to be appointed Germany’s health minister

Karl Lauterbach will lead country’s battle against severe fourth wave of Covic-19

Incoming German chancellor Olaf Scholz with his designated minister for health Karl Lauterbach on Monday. Photograph: Filip Singer/EPA

Incoming German chancellor Olaf Scholz with his designated minister for health Karl Lauterbach on Monday. Photograph: Filip Singer/EPA

 

Germany’s incoming chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has appointed a high-profile epidemiologist, Karl Lauterbach, as his federal health minister in a bid to master its severe fourth wave of Covid-19.

With the new Omicron variant triggering a return of restrictions across the continent, Covid-19 hung over Monday’s presentation of Social Democratic Party (SPD) cabinet appointments in Berlin – in particular a health portfolio that, it seemed, nobody wanted.

Nobody, that is, except Karl Lauterbach, the bow tie-loving Rhineland doctor and SPD politician who has operated as a shadow health minister, in particular on television talk shows, long before the pandemic struck.

Popular with the public for his specialist knowledge, his pessimistic predictions in sing-song Rhineland German have attracted gentle mockery in the media. Some SPD colleagues, businesspeople and even Covid-19 sceptics go further, dubbing Prof Lauterbach the “eternal pandemic alarmist”.

On Monday, Mr Scholz announced his key appointment with a nod to an energetic social media campaign using the hashtag #wewantkarl.

“Most people wished for [a health minister] from the trade and many wished that he be called Karl Lauterbach,” said Mr Scholz. Enjoying his big reveal, he added: “And it shall be he.”

‘Affirmative voices’

The new minister thanked the future chancellor and colleagues for the nomination as well as the “many affirmative voices from the public”.

“We have to fight a pandemic that will last longer than many imagine,” said the 58-year-old MP and epidemiologist, currently on leave from his job at the University of Cologne’s Centre for Health Economics and Clinical Epidemiology. “Vaccination will play a key role, though not only that. We also have to strengthen our health system.”

Prof Lauterbach inherits the health – and pandemic – mantle a week after the peak of fourth wave infections to date. Outgoing minister Jens Spahn departs with a mixed record: the memory of Germany’s mild first wave has long since been eclipsed by a series of Spahn-linked scandals over masks, tests and a battle with low rates of vaccination and booster jabs.

With two-dose numbers ranging from 80 per cent in the northern city-state of Bremen, to just 60 per cent in the eastern state of Saxony, Prof Lauterbach will have to work closely with Germany’s 16 state health ministers on new restrictions – and a proposed vaccine mandate next spring.

Ahead of his appointment on Wednesday, Prof Lauterbach has said Germany is “vaccinating against the clock” and “will not manage it without a vaccination mandate”.

Exceptions

Neighbouring Austria is moving ahead with its own plan to introduce a vaccine mandate by February. Draft legislation indicates that all residents over 14 will be required to have three doses of recognised vaccines, with exceptions made for those with valid medical reasons.

Reports suggest fines for violating the mandate begin at €600 quarterly, with an additional €3,600 for refusing to pay the fine.

Now in its third week of lockdown for all, Austria’s daily infections are down by half from a peak two weeks ago with a vaccination rate of about 72 per cent of the population. Further south in Greece, where 62 per cent of people are fully vaccinated, the government has announced €100 monthly fines from January for over-60s who refuse their jabs.

On Monday, Switzerland stepped up its testing regime and made Covid-19 vaccination certificates – and masks – mandatory for all indoor events.

Further north in Denmark, where experts are warning of a “worrying” spread of the Omicron variant, prime minister Mette Frederiksen has apologised for not wearing a face mask while out shopping at the weekend, in line with week-old new rules.

“It was simply an oversight after the new rules were introduced, and I only became aware of it after a citizen filmed it,” she wrote on Facebook.