Decision taken after MPs rejected draft bill is seen as humiliating defeat for chancellor Olaf Scholz
Kate Connolly in Berlin
The German government has buried its plans to introduce a coronavirus vaccine mandate after parliament rejected it, but says further restrictions may be inevitable to protect more vulnerable citizens.
MPs voted against the draft bill on Thursday, which had it passed would have made it compulsory for over-60s to receive a vaccine, in what is seen as a humiliating defeat for the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who has long been calling for the legislation.
Originally the government’s plan had been for a widespread mandate to cover anyone over the age of 18. When that failed to attract enough support, it raised the age to over 50 and then to over 60.
MPs rejected it by 378 to 296.
The health minister, Karl Lauterbach, who has also been a firm backer of a mandate, arguing that Germany’s vaccination rate among older people is too low, said on Friday that he could not rule out the need to reintroduce restrictions such as mask wearing, especially in the autumn when the virus is expected to surge.
About 76% of Germans are fully vaccinated, below the government’s target of 80%. Of particular concern are the 2 million – around 12% – of over-60s who are unvaccinated, a figure Lauterbach has repeatedly said is around three to four times higher in that age group than in other comparable countries such as the UK.
A representative of German hospitals said on Friday that the daily rate of deaths from Covid-19 – which has been oscillating between around 200 and 300 for weeks – was “scarily high”, particularly when it was known that most of the deaths were likely to have been preventable. He said 80% of those being admitted to hospital with the virus were over 60, and the majority of deaths were of people who were unvaccinated.
Lauterbach, a virologist who was a popular choice for health minister but has faced criticism for failing to project a positive message, said during a heated debate that he thought people had lost sight of the benefits brought by the vaccine.
“If no one had been vaccinated, we would now have a perfect catastrophe and would be stuck in an all out lockdown. We must understand that,” he said. He questioned whether Germans really thought it was acceptable for the country to be facing several hundred mainly avoidable deaths every day for the foreseeable future.
Sahra Wagenknecht of the far-left Die Linke party, said that as long as it was not known “how well the vaccine offers protection against future mutations” it was wrong of the government to make it mandatory. “Stop trying to patronise people,” she said, addressing Scholz. “The coronavirus vaccine must remain a personal decision.”
The vote was considered so crucial to the government that Scholz recalled the foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, from a Nato meeting in Brussels to participate.
Scholz confirmed after the debate that he believed, in contrast to Lauterbach, that the debate was dead in the water.
“Parliament has spoken very clearly,” he said. “There is no legislative majority for a vaccine mandate,” he said. “This is the reality that we now need to take as the basis for our actions.”
Lauterbach called the decision deeply regrettable. He has previously and repeatedly accused people who refuse a vaccination of “holding the rest of the country hostage”.
At a recent election rally, Scholz urged people to get vaccinated. “Where’s the solidarity, when it’s of no concern to you whether you are infecting other people or not?” he said. “Freedom only functions when it means freedom for everyone.”