EU must consider mandatory Covid jabs, says Von der Leyen

( Guardian )

The EU must consider mandatory vaccination in response to the spread of the “highly contagious” Omicron Covid variant across Europe, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has said.

In a call to action, Von der Leyen said the EU’s 27 member states should rapidly deploy booster doses and a commission communique backed countries that opted to temporarily enforce pre-travel PCR tests even within the bloc’s borders.

Asked whether she supported the Greek government in its imposing of a €100 (£85) monthly fine on those aged 60 and over who failed to get a Covid jab, Von der Leyen said the spread of the disease and lack of vaccine take-up in parts of the EU meant mandatory vaccination had to be on the table as a policy response.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Von der Leyen, who practised as a doctor before her political career, said: “If you’re asking me what my personal position is, two or three years ago, I would never have thought to witness what we see right now, that we have this horrible pandemic. We have the vaccines, the life-saving vaccines, but they are not being used adequately everywhere. And this costs … This is an enormous health cost coming along.

“If you look at the numbers, we have now 77% of the adults in the European Union vaccinated or if you take the whole population, it’s 66%. And this means one-third of the European population is not vaccinated. These are 150 million people. This is a lot, and not each and every one can be vaccinated – children, for example, or people with special medical conditions – but the vast majority could and therefore, I think it is understandable and appropriate to lead this discussion now.

“How we can encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union, this needs discussion. This needs a common approach, but it is a discussion that I think has to be met.”

There is growing momentum behind mandatory vaccination among the EU member states. It has been reported that Germany’s chancellor-to-be, Olaf Scholz, supports the policy and neighbouring Austria is debating how to enforce obligatory jabs from February.

Health policy remains a national competence. On Tuesday, Greece said it would make Covid vaccinations mandatory for people aged 60 and older in order to protect its faltering health system. About 63% of Greece’s 11 million population are fully vaccinated but there are 520,000 people over the age of 60 who have failed to get a jab.

Von der Leyen said Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna were set to deliver 360m more doses by the end of March, ensuring there was sufficient supply for booster jabs. “That is good news. So go get it,” she said.

In the event of the vaccines failing to offer the current level of protection in the light of the spread of the Omicron variant, researchers believe it would take about 100 days to adjust their products.

But Von der Leyen said the world was in a “race against time” and the onus had to be on getting jabs into arms now. “Scientists tell us we have to do everything possible to make the best out of the time we have till we have certainty about the characteristics of transmissibility and severity of Omicron,” she said. “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best”.

She added: “Over the last couple of weeks, many of us have witnessed it firsthand: Covid 19 has resurged infecting some of our close friends, co-workers, family members or loved ones.

“The rapidly increasing case numbers are putting an increasingly heavy strain on our hospitals and health workers. On top the arrival of the presumably highly contiguous Omicron variant calls for our utmost attention. But I am convinced that the EU is up to the task to tackle these challenges.”

Last week Sajid Javid, the UK health secretary, said he did not believe the UK would ever impose mandatory vaccination among the general population, but it will be enforced from April on frontline NHS workers in England. Staff with medical reasons for not having a vaccine and workers who do not have face-to-face contact with patients will be exempt.

In the UK, 80.6% of the population aged 12 and over have had two jabs and 31.7% have had a third booster dose.

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