Olaf Scholz faces growing pressure on delayed vaccine mandate

Chancellor already missed goal of 80% of Germans getting at least one jab by January 7th

Olaf Scholz was sworn in as German chancellor last month, promising a style of leadership that would be about “action, not show”.

That swipe at his predecessor, Angela Merkel, has come back to haunt him now, with uncertainty growing over when – and if – his government can deliver on his promised Covid-19 vaccination mandate.

As chancellor-designate, with a third wave building in Germany, Scholz said he had come around to the view that obligatory Covid-19 vaccination was crucial to mastering the pandemic. In a November 30th television interview, he promised a free vote in parliament on the issue by early March at the latest.

Now his spokesman has announced that the chancellor will leave the scheduling of the vote to the Bundestag. Scholz is backing away from the vaccine business because, according to Bundestag officials, he has tripped over a well-flagged issue.

Any vaccination legislation will have to pass through the Bundestag – twice – and the upper house, the Bundesrat, before being signed into law by the president.

Carnival season

But February is carnival season in parts of Germany, a jolly pre-Lenten stretch of fancy dress parades and other festivities. Out of respect for this tradition, the Bundestag goes easy on parliamentary sittings.

Just one session is scheduled for next month – and this even though the pandemic has forced the cancellation of almost all carnival gatherings for the second year running.

One sitting in February means the earliest the legislation can be passed by the Bundestag is mid-March, and in the upper house is April 8th.

Without the scheduling of additional Bundestag sittings, the vaccine mandate is unlikely to come into law before May; a central vaccination register is unlikely to be ready before June.

Scholz has already missed another pandemic goal, falling more than five percentage points short of the 80 per cent of Germans he wanted to have had at least a single jab by January 7th. Scholz knows that the longer Germany’s vaccination mandate is pushed off into the future, the more heated the debate inside his three-way coalition.

Leading officials of his Social Democratic Party have promised to spare party MPs the whip and allow them decide on the vaccine mandate according to their conscience. “I’m not sure today how I will vote,” said Kevin Kühnert, SPD general secretary, on Monday.

Ethics and data

Over at the SPD’s coalition partners, a lively debate is under way among the Greens over ethics and data-protection concerns. Meanwhile, the liberal Free Democratic Party faces a challenge from a group of rebel MPs who are campaigning against the looming vaccine mandate.

“I am in favour of vaccination but a general mandate is the wrong instrument,” said Linda Teuteberg, a former FPD general secretary. She points to a lack of information on vaccines’ long-term efficacy and unanswered questions over how to police the mandate, adding: “Our constitution only allows for such interventions if they are commensurate with the threat.”

Some in the FDP are suggesting a compromise: follow Italy’s example from this week, which requires all over-50s to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

Already last year German MPs voted to make vaccination compulsory for the staff of health and care institutions. This obligation will apply from mid-March. The head of Germany’s federal vaccination body has warned that the vaccine mandate could polarise further the country’s already-heated vaccination debate.

A vaccination mandate in Germany will come too late to arrest the latest Covid-19 wave, with infections up nearly two-thirds in the last seven days with a slight drop in intensive care bed occupancy.