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Opinion: EU dodges debate on vaccine mandates

Opinion: EU dodges debate on vaccine mandates

The EU approach to tackling the COVID-19 pandemic is disjointed, the vaccination rate too low. Two worlds are set to collide when Germany’s new health minister, Karl Lauterbach, takes on Brussels, writes Bernd Riegert.

The EU Commission and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control have been relentless in their warnings to member states that the coronavirus situation is dramatic and likely to worsen in the coming weeks.

And equally relentlessly, EU health ministers continue to procrastinate. There is little sign of coordinated action, either in dealing with the current wave or anticipating the impact of the omicron variant.

At their recent meeting in Brussels, ministers refused to even discuss vaccine mandates in Europe.Yet it’s high time they did. EU health experts say that at 66%, the average vaccination rate of adults in the EU is far too low. In six countries, it’s even below 55%.

Yet, all that came out of Brussels were the same old hollow phrases on how to increase the vaccination rate on a voluntary basis.

Inaction and inertia within the EU

The EU Commission is not planning its own advertising campaign to boost vaccination rates. Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides has nevertheless correctly recognized that, as long as one single member country with a low vaccination rate has the potential to set off new waves of infections that may affect the others, Europe as a whole is in danger.

DW Brussels correspondent Bernd Riegert

And yet EU ministers are reluctant to embrace the logical next step — to discuss EU-wide vaccine mandates and to act as quickly as possible. The delta and omicron variants won’t hang around while politicians defer action.

Austria and Germany are in favour of introducing general vaccine mandates, while Italy, Spain and France have made vaccinations mandatory for certain areas and occupational groups.

This could have huge implications for the rest of the EU and neighboring countries. Will Germany and Austria at some point bar unvaccinated EU citizens from entering the country? That would be the logical step. And how does this align with the EU’s Digital COVID Certificate (vaccinated, recovered, or tested negative), which has allowed relatively smooth travel between member states since the summer? The silence from Brussels is deafening.

No answers to key questions

Six months after the introduction of the vaccination certificate there is still no consensus on how long it should be valid — six, nine, 12 months, anyone?

EU health ministers are equally evasive on the question of whether booster vaccinations are recommended or even required; crucial decisions are being put off — as if they had all the time in the world.

Former German Health Minister Jens Spahn told his ex-colleagues that he did not believe new travel restrictions would be necessary within the EU. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ireland and Portugal already require a negative test in addition to the EU COVID Certificate. France looks set to follow suit. Malta only allows vaccinated people to enter the country — a negative test will not suffice.

The application of so-called 3G rules (geimpft, genesen, getestet; vaccinated, recovered, tested), 2G (vaccinated/recovered), or 2G+ (vaccinated/recovered, plus proof of a negative test), is inconsistent in all member states and linked to different criteria. This patchwork of regulations looks set to become even worse. After fighting the pandemic for 20 months, the EU has learned next to nothing.

A chart showing percentage of people vaccinated by continent

Can Karl Lauterbach make a difference?

The new German health minister, Karl Lauterbach, will have his work cut out for him when he sits down with his colleagues in Brussels and tries to expedite the decision-making process. Now is the time to address vaccine mandates and travel regulations — not somewhere down the line during the sixth or seventh wave.

Still, it’s not all gloom and doom. The EU has managed to jointly procure sufficient vaccines for all countries, even though a third of all EU citizens do not want them — yet. Beyond that, the EU Commission is to take the lead, on behalf of the member states, in purchasing and distributing new drugs that could counter COVID-19 in its severest forms. A small step in the right direction.

This article was translated from the original German.