Will Germany's compulsory vaccine plan backfire?

3 December 2021

11:30 PM

3 December 2021

11:30 PM

Covid was probably the last thing on Angela Merkel’s mind as she listened to the East German pop tunes of her youth played by the Bundeswehr’s military band for her retirement ceremony last night. But a few hours earlier, the outgoing German chancellor had one last entry to make on her political will. No longer a member of parliament herself, she urged those who are to vote for mandatory vaccination against Covid as an ‘act of national solidarity’.

The German states had pulled forward a Covid conference planned for 9 December in light of high case numbers and localised pressure on hospitals and ICUs. They decided on a de-facto lockdown for the unvaccinated at federal level as well as further restrictions on social gatherings and events.

Masks will be made compulsory in schools for all ages. There will be no private fireworks at New Year’s Eve in the hope of preventing large gatherings. Events will have to run at 50 per cent capacity. Further restrictions can be implemented by each state if necessary. Vaccinated or recovered individuals can, however, continue to go shopping, attend events or see their friends.

But for the unvaccinated, a full lockdown is in place. They will only be allowed to enter ‘essential’ shops such as supermarkets and pharmacies. They cannot legally socialise beyond their own household and two additional people from another one. They have no access to leisure activities, cultural or retail venues – no restaurants, bars or Christmas markets for them.

GettyImages-1236978088.jpgA sign reading ‘Access only for vaccinated or recovered guests’ hangs on the entrance of a pub in Stuttgart, southern Germany (Getty Images)

All of these measures will be rolled out across Germany. What these measures will mean in reality is unclear for now as business owners have been instructed to enforce the regulations themselves. But it remains uncertain whether their enforcement will be a matter for the police.

The Minister of the Interior has further muddied the waters by confirming that the freedom of assembly is enshrined in Germany’s constitution and takes legal priority over regular legislation such as the Covid measures. In principle then, the police and shop owners will find it hard to enforce a ban on mass gatherings where they occur.

The government is hopeful that it might not come to that; a new survey showed that 60 per cent of the German public support stronger Covid measures, a figure that has doubled since the last month.

However, a closer examination reveals that the survey results are not born out of a desire to return to lockdown. Only a quarter want retail and schools shut down this time compared to over two thirds last year. Germans are clearly fed up with lockdowns; instead they are pinning their hopes on vaccination. As a result, nearly three quarters are in favour of mandatory vaccination.

The government has long flirted with the idea of forcing its way to higher vaccination rates. Germany has a bigger segment of vaccine sceptics than many other Western European nations, and this is not merely restricted to the ‘far right’, as is sometimes reported. Libertarians, neo-hippies and those worried about the rushed medical testing of the vaccines are also hesitant about getting jabbed.

This eclectic mix of the unvaccinated makes up just under a quarter of the population, almost an exact mirror image of those who demand compulsory vaccination. It seems that those who are vaccinated are pushing for the unjabbed to step up in the hope of putting an end to the unpopular lockdown cycle.

Gone are the days where free sausages were offered to those who agreed to get the jab, and nightclubs were hailed as the perfect venues to get through to the younger demographics. Instead, Merkel has suggested that even those who had already been double jabbed that their ‘vaccination status will not be retained without the booster.’

Chancellor-in-waiting Olaf Scholz has also suddenly come out on the side of compulsory vaccination. In August, he claimed that ‘we do not want to introduce mandatory vaccination’. Now he is preparing the legislation to go through the Bundestag by February 2022. Even Christian Lindner, leader of the Free Liberals, has confirmed he would support the policy.

GettyImages-1236959377.jpgFrom left to right: Berlin’s Mayor Michael Mueller, Angela Merkel and Olaf Scholz (Getty Images)

But a forceful approach is doomed to backfire. Those who are happy to receive the vaccine have been given every opportunity. Those yet unvaccinated have made a conscious decision, often in spite of pressure from family members, colleagues and neighbours. State-enforced threats will only corner this group further and, in the case of conspiracy theorists, confirm fears of state violence.

Politicians have already admitted that the law is probably unenforceable. Most agree that people cannot and will not be vaccinated by force; at most, these people will face a fine or further restrictions of movement. Yet such restrictions are already barely enforced. Every Monday, thousands of people conduct ‘freedom walks’ in the east German state of Saxony and the police have little means or inclination to break up the gatherings.

Saxony may be an extreme example – at 58.4 per cent it has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe alongside one of the highest rates of new infections – but the vociferous response to the new harsh measures introduced in the region is a preview of things to come elsewhere.

Saxony’s hospitals are at breaking point. Yet the same hospitals saw mass gatherings on Saturday in protest against the compulsory vaccination of staff. Micro-parties like the ‘Free Saxons’ are organising widespread protests with the backing of local councillors and other public figures. The Telegram channel of the party has tens of thousands of followers who call the police ‘Corona-Staats-Polizei’ or CoStaPo, alluding to the Nazi’s infamous secret police. Indeed since the announcements for lockdown measures were made by the German government, ‘Nazis’ has been trending on Twitter.

While many of the protests in Saxony so far have been peaceful, some have spilled into violence. A test centre in the eastern town of Zittau by the Polish border had to be shut because of unrest at the site. In Chemnitz, protesters have clashed with counter-protests.

Germans may be desperate to end the paralysing cycle of lockdowns, but the majority can not force its will onto the minority through state legislation dressed up as an ‘act of national solidarity’. This cure could be infinitely worse than the disease.

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