German politicians were deeply divided on Sunday over a warning by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff that restrictions for unvaccinated people may be necessary if Covid-19 infection numbers reach new heights in the coming months.
Chief of staff Helge Braun told the newspaper Bild am Sonntag that he doesn’t expect another coronavirus-related lockdown in Germany. But he said that unvaccinated people may be barred from entering venues like restaurants, cinemas or sports stadiums “because the residual risk is too high”.
Braun said getting vaccinated is important to protect against severe disease and because “vaccinated people will definitely have more freedoms than unvaccinated people”.
He said such policies would be legal because “the state has the responsibility to protect the health of its citizens”.
The issue has proven divisive, even within Merkel’s own Christian Democrats party.
The party’s candidate to replace Merkel as Germany’s leader, Armin Laschet, told the German broadcaster ZDF on Sunday, “I don’t believe in compulsory vaccinations and I don’t believe we should put indirect pressure on people to get vaccinated. In a free country there are rights to freedom, not just for specific groups.”
If Germany’s vaccination rates remain too low this autumn, other options could be considered, Laschet said, adding “but not now.”
More than 60% of the German population have received at least one dose while nearly 50% are fully vaccinated, but vaccine efforts have slowed in recent weeks and that has led to discussions about how best to encourage those who haven’t yet received a vaccine to do so.
With the highly transmissible delta variant spreading in Germany, politicians are debating the possibility of compulsory vaccinations for specific professions, including medical workers.
Merkel has ruled out new vaccine requirements “at the moment”, but added, “I’m not ruling out that this might be talked about differently in a few months.”
Karl Lauterbach, a health expert from the centre-left Social Democrats, spoke in favour of possible restrictions. He told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that soon one of the only remaining options to fight new variants will be “to restrict access to spaces where many people come together” to those who have either been vaccinated or recovered from the virus.
Others immediately pushed back against Braun’s comments on Sunday. Some expressed scepticism about the effectiveness of such restrictions, while others warned against having rights based on one’s vaccination status.
“Of course, we need incentives to reach the highest possible vaccination rate,” Marco Buschmann, parliamentary group leader for the pro-business Free Democrats, told RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland.
Still, he said, if unvaccinated people who have been tested or recovered from the virus pose no greater danger than vaccinated people, to impose such restrictions on the unvaccinated “would be a violation of their basic rights”.
Rolf Mützenich, head of the Social Democrats’ parliamentary group, said politicians should be focusing more on getting willing citizens vaccinated than penalising the unvaccinated.
“We’re not going to sustainably change the vaccination behaviour of individuals with threats,” he told RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland.