German chancellor Olaf Scholz suffered a first big defeat in the Bundestag on Thursday after MPs rejected a bid to make Covid-19 vaccinations compulsory for everyone over the age of 60.
A bill supported by the three parties in Scholz’s governing coalition was rejected by 378 MPs, with only 296 supporting it and nine abstaining.
The outcome was an embarrassing setback for Scholz, whose government did not present the bill but who gave it his backing. He even ordered foreign minister Annalena Baerbock to leave a Nato meeting in Brussels so she could take part in the vote.
Germany’s vaccination rate has lagged behind that of other big European countries, with only 76 per cent of the population having received two shots while 58.9 per cent have also had a booster jab. Health experts worry that the country is ill-prepared for any further wave of coronavirus infections in the autumn.
Scholz said shortly after he succeeded Angela Merkel as chancellor in December that he favoured making vaccinations mandatory for all adults.
But it was clear from the start that he faced strong opposition from within his government. Liberals in the Free Democratic party (FDP) considered the idea to be an infringement of civil rights.
In the end, Scholz’s government — which includes his left-of-centre Social Democrats and the Greens alongside the FDP — failed to present its own draft law, leaving it to MPs to come up with a proposal to put to the Bundestag.
Some MPs wanted to make vaccinations mandatory for all those aged 18 and over, but the FDP wanted the requirement to be aimed at a much narrower group. In the end the three governing parties agreed on a compromise proposal to require everyone over the age of 60 to get the jab.
However, lawmakers were not obliged to vote along party lines and large numbers of MPs, even in government parties, showed that they opposed the proposal. The FDP’s deputy leader Wolfgang Kubicki said it was not the state’s role “to force adults to protect themselves against their will”.
Sahra Wagenknecht, of the hard left Die Linke party, said vaccinations against coronavirus “must remain a personal decision”. The right-of-centre Christian Democrats also rejected the government parties’ motion.
Supporters of the initiative expressed disappointment after it was voted down. “The fight against coronavirus in the autumn will now be a lot harder,” said Karl Lauterbach, health minister. “[But] there’s no point in pointing the finger of blame. We will just keep going.”
Janosch Dahmen, the Greens’ health spokesman, said the failure of the law “pains me especially as a doctor, because it means the health risk for vulnerable and elderly people will stay high and the burden on health workers will remain very great”.