(Associated Press) Unvaccinated people across Germany will soon be excluded from nonessential stores, restaurants and sports and cultural venues, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Thursday, and parliament will consider a general vaccine mandate as part of efforts to curb coronavirus infections.
Merkel announced the measures after a meeting with federal and state leaders, as the nation again topped 70,000 newly confirmed cases in a 24-hour period. She said the steps were necessary to address concerns that hospitals could become overloaded with patients suffering from COVID-19 infections, which are much more likely to be serious in people who have not been vaccinated.
“The situation in our country is serious,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin, calling the measures an “act of national solidarity.”
She said officials also agreed on a nationwide requirement to wear masks, new limits on private meetings and a goal of 30 million vaccinations by the end of the year — an effort that will be boosted by allowing dentists and pharmacists to administer the shots.
Merkel said authorities plan to require staff in hospitals and nursing homes to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and she backed the even more contentious idea of imposing a general vaccine mandate. She said parliament would debate the proposal with input from the country’s national ethics committee. The mandate could take effect as early as February.
“In light of this situation, I really think it’s necessary to pass such a mandate,” Merkel said, adding that she would have voted for it if she were still a lawmaker.
Greeks over 60 who refuse coronavirus vaccinations could be hit with monthly fines of more than one-quarter of their minimum pensions — a get-tough policy that the country’s politicians say will cost votes but save lives.
Weekly protests in the Netherlands over the country’s 5 p.m. lockdown and other new restrictions have descended into violence, despite what appears to be overwhelming acceptance of the rules.
In Israel, the government on Thursday halted the use of a controversial phone tracking technology to trace possible cases of the new coronavirus variant after a public uproar.
With the delta variant of COVID-19 pushing up cases in Europe and growing fears over the omicron variant, governments around the world are weighing new measures for populations tired of hearing about restrictions and vaccines.
It’s a thorny calculus made more difficult by the prospect of backlash, increased social divisions and, for many politicians, the fear of being voted out of office.
“I know the frustration that we all feel with this omicron variant, the sense of exhaustion that we could be going through this all over again,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Tuesday, two days after the government announced that masks would be mandatory again in stores and on public transportation and required all visitors from abroad to undergo a COVID-19 test and quarantine. “We’re trying to take a balanced and proportioned approach.”
New restrictions, or variations on the old ones, are cropping up around the world, especially in Europe, where leaders are at pains to explain what looks like a failed promise: that mass vaccinations would mean an end to widely loathed limitations.
“People need normality. They need families, they need to see people, obviously safely, socially distancing, but I really think, this Christmas now, people have had enough,” said Belinda Storey, who runs a stall at a Christmas market in Nottingham, England.
In the Netherlands, where the lockdown went into effect last week, mounted police patrol the streets to break up demonstrations. But most people appeared resigned to rush through errands and head home.
“The only thing we can do is to listen to the rules, follow them and hope it’s not getting worse. For me it’s no problem. I’m a nurse. I know how sick people get,” said Wilma van Kampen.
Huburt Bruls, who as mayor of the Dutch city of Nijmegen banned a protest last weekend, said he sympathized with the frustration but was prepared to carry out the national rules.
“There was a lot of disappointment in the effects of vaccination. Everybody did their best, we had one of the highest rates of vaccinations, and it wasn’t enough. Infections are higher than ever. I myself was a little disappointed, but we have to look ahead,” he said.
In Greece, residents over 60 face fines of 100 euros ($113) a month if they fail to get vaccinated. The fines will be tacked onto tax bills in January. About 17% of Greeks over 60 are unvaccinated despite various efforts to prod them to get their shots, and nine in 10 Greeks now dying of COVID-19 are over 60.
“I don’t care whether the measure will cost me some extra votes in the elections,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Wednesday after lawmakers passed the measure. “I am convinced that we are doing the right thing, and I am convinced that this policy will save lives.”
Employing a carrot instead of a stick, Slovakia’s government is proposing to give people 60 and older a 500-euro ($568) bonus if they get vaccinated.
In Israel, the government this week briefly resumed using a phone-monitoring technology to perform contact tracing of people confirmed to have the omicron variant, only to halt its use on Thursday.
“From the beginning I noted that use of this tool would be limited and brief — for a few days, in order to get urgent information to halt infection with the new, unknown variant,” Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said on Twitter.
In South Africa, which alerted the World Health Organization to the omicron variant, previous restrictions included curfews and a ban on alcohol sales. This time, President Cyril Ramaphosa is simply calling on more people to get vaccines “to help restore the social freedoms we all yearn for.”
Germany on Thursday imposed strict new limitations on the unvaccinated, excluding them from nonessential stores, restaurants, and other major public venues. They can go to work only with a negative test.
The legislature is expected to take up a general vaccine mandate in coming weeks.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the measures were necessary because hospitals risked becoming overloaded: “The situation in our country is serious.”
In the U.S., there is little appetite in either political party for a return to lockdowns or strict contact tracing. Enforcing even simple measures like mask-wearing has become a political flashpoint. And Republicans are suing to block the Biden administration’s new get-vaccinated-or-get-tested requirement for large employers.
President Joe Biden, whose political fate may well hinge on controlling the pandemic, has said the U.S. will fight COVID-19 and the new variant “not with shutdowns or lockdowns but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing, and more.”
“If people are vaccinated and wear their masks, there’s no need for the lockdowns,” he added.
Dr. Madhukar Pai, of McGill University’s School of Population and Public Health, said that masks are an easy and pain-free way of keeping transmission down, but that cheap, at-home tests need to be much more widespread, in both rich and poor countries.
He said both approaches give people a sense of control over their own behavior that is lost with a lockdown and make it easier to accept the need to do things like cancel a party or stay inside.
Pai said requiring boosters universally, as is essentially the case in Israel, Chile and many countries in Europe, including France, will only prolong the pandemic by making it harder to get first doses to the developing world. That raises the odds of still more variants.
Lockdowns, he said, should be the very last choice.
“Lockdowns only come up when a system is failing,” he said. “We do it when the hospital system is about to collapse. It’s a last resort that indicates you have failed to do all the right things.”