The public broadly supports a vaccine mandate. Some officials are calling for one. But a general COVID-19 vaccine requirement remains a difficult sell in Germany.

With the coldest, darkest days still to come in Germany, cases of COVID-19 are already soaring and alarm bells are going off at hospitals around the country. The vaccination rate — 68% of the population has at least two shots — is just not high enough to fend off the fourth wave of infections and tame the pandemic.

Germany’s voluntary stance on vaccination differs from that of countries such as France and Italy, which have vaccine mandates in place for certain sectors of the workforce and overall have higher rates of vaccination. Austria is set to become the first European country to impose an across-the-board mandate. Even in the United States, famous for its “don’t tread on me” attitude toward government, President Joe Biden is pushing the legal envelope to compel people to get their shots.

Despite a tightening of the rules to make unvaccinated life more difficult, the road toward any sort of mandate is long and winding, and its destination uncertain. Both the outgoing government under caretaker Chancellor Angela Merkel and the likely incoming coalition led by Olaf Scholz, of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), oppose compulsory vaccination.

There is precedent for a vaccine mandate, however. Imperial Germany had one against smallpox; former East Germany did so against diphtheria and tuberculosis; and the modern German republic implemented a measles vaccine mandate for children and other affected groups early last year, though rulings on legal challenges remain.

Germany’s Infektionsschutzgesetz (infection protection law) provides the parliament with the legal wiggle room to mandate vaccination for “at-risk parts of the population” against a “contagious disease that presents clinically severe outcomes and when its epidemical spread is expected.”


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