Chancellor Angela Merkel has suggested that Germans who decline to be vaccinated against Covid-19 may face restrictions in everyday life.
In a rare television interview, Dr Merkel defended the pace of the vaccine rollout in the EU and said the pandemic had too many variables to allow a firm domestic timetable out of lockdown.
Amid ongoing criticism, the chancellor insisted the EU’s vaccine procurement procedures had been proper and timely, and indicated she was open to buying doses of Russia’s Sputnik vaccine.
“If you had told me a year ago when we have the first vaccine already, I wouldn’t have said we could have got to this point so quickly,” she said.
The chancellor said 10 million Germans would be vaccinated in the first quarter and she promised that – based on current production projections and permitted EU vaccines – all will have a vaccination offer by the third quarter.
“If then some people don’t want to be vaccinated, then perhaps we will have to make a distinction, then perhaps they won’t be able to do certain things,” the chancellor added.
Hours after the publication of strong data for Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, the German leader said she had spoken to President Vladimir Putin about it and that “every vaccine is welcome in the EU” once it has European Medicines Agency (EMA) approval.
While Germany’s incidence rate has dropped again below 100 per 100,000 over seven days, the chancellor is under pressure to explain why, according to estimates, just three out of every 100 Germans have been vaccinated, compared with 10 and 15 in the US and UK respectively.
She pointed out that the US was keeping for itself all vaccines produced in its territory, leaving the EU dependent on European production facilities. Dr Merkel insisted the EMA was wise to spend more time examining two Covid-19 vaccines before issuing full approval, rather than following the UK in issuing emergency approvals.
Maintaining public trust in vaccines was essential, she said, and, given the “terrible things” caused by some vaccines in the past, the EU was wise not to expedite the approval process and accept liability – as London had done.
A representative public television survey in January suggested 54 per cent of Germans were prepared to be vaccinated, up 17 points on the previous survey in November. In the same survey, some 73 per cent opposed penalties for those who refuse the vaccination. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), a vaccination rate of 60-70 per cent of a population is essential for containing Covid-19.
Germany’s leading ethical council has said it opposes introducing any kind of obligation to be vaccinated; its board members are divided 50:50 on whether non-vaccinated people should be treated differently in the future.
At an event in Berlin on Tuesday, Germany’s Social Democrat (SPD) finance minister Olaf Scholz disagreed with the chancellor on the race to procure vaccines.
“We have to be [self]-critical and admit that more [vaccines] should have been ordered,” said Mr Scholz, who is hoping to succeed Dr Merkel as chancellor after September’s federal election.