It is time for the European Union ‘to think about’ making Covid vaccines mandatory across the entire bloc, Ursula von der Leyen has said as the continent battles a winter wave of virus amid fears about the Omicron variant.
The EU Commission President, speaking in Brussels, said it will ultimately be up to member states to decide their own vaccine rules – but it is her ‘personal opinion’ that the time is right to discuss forcing people to get jabs.
‘We have one third of the population which is not vaccinated. This is 150million people – that is a lot. Not each and every one could be vaccinated… but the vast majority could,’ she said.
Ms Von der Leyen’s comments come after Austria announced plans to make vaccines mandatory for all eligible citizens by February, with an aide to incoming German Chancellor Olaf Scholz saying yesterday that he wants to follow suit.
Ursula von der Leyen has said it is time to discuss making vaccines mandatory across the EU after Germany and Austria moved to force them on citizens
Adding to those fears is the emergence of the new Omicron variant which is thought to be more infectious than the Delta strain, and has been detected in Europe.
Ms Von dey Leyen was speaking at a press conference to discuss what measures the EU is taking to combat these dual threats.
She said the European Union has enough booster shots for every fully vaccinated adult to get one, urging people to take it within six months of their last jab.
Pfizer vaccines will also be available for children as young a five within the next two weeks after the European medical regulator approved it, she added.
Measures such as masks, hand hygiene and social distancing are also being used she said, but ‘full vaccination and boosters provide the strongest protection against Covid that is available now.’
Asked by a journalist whether she supported making vaccines mandatory for everyone, she replied: ‘ First of all, this is pure member state competence – it is therefore not up to me to give any kind of recommendation.
‘[But] 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.
Vaccination rates differ widely across Europe, with Portugal having jabbed almost its entire eligible population while Poland has vaccinated just over half
The EU’s overall vaccination rate, taking into account its entire population, is around 66 per cent – meaning a third of people are not protected from the virus
‘That we have this horrible pandemic, we have the lifesaving vaccines, but they are not being used adequately everywhere, and thus this is an enormous health cost
‘If you look at the numbers we have 66 per cent of whole EU population vaccinated, which means we have one third of the population which is not vaccinated.
‘This is 150million people – that is a lot. Not each and every one could be vaccinated, these are very young children and people with medical conditions, but the vast majority could
‘Therefore I think it is understandable and appropriate to lead this discussion now, how we can encourage and potentially think about how we can have mandatory vaccination within the European Union.
‘This needs discussion, this needs a common approach, but it is a discussion that I think needs to be had.’
European leaders have been targeting the unvaccinated with measures since the winter wave of infections began picking up speed last month.
Olaf Sholz, the incoming German chancellor, is considering imposing a vaccine mandate, an aide has said
Countries including the likes of Italy, France and Germany tightening rules around their health passes to deny unjabbed people access to public spaces.
France has also introduced ‘expiry dates’ for its passes that mean adults who have not had a booster within the last seven months will be penalised.
Austria went the furthest, initially locking the unvaccinated in their homes before reversing that policy with a full lockdown and announcement that jabs would be mandatory for all.
The government is currently consulting with lawyers to make sure the move is constitutional, and has set itself a date to introduce the rule of February next year.
Olaf Scholz, Germany’s new chancellor, is said to be considering following suit according to an aide who spoke to journalists this week.
Meanwhile Greece has said jabs will be mandatory for over-60s.
Europe is experiencing a surge of COVID-19 cases and a growing number of infections by the Omicron variant that the World Health Organization has labelled a variant of concern and that has concerned scientists due to its multiple mutations.
‘We are facing at the moment a severe double challenge,’ Ms von der Leyen told a news conference.
‘On one hand, we are amid the fourth wave… On the other hand, we are facing a new threat that is the new variant Omicron.’
The EU executive said that its 27 EU members needed to step up vaccination campaigns, with some 66% of the total EU population now inoculated.
Vaccines for children between five and 11 will be eligible to receive vaccines from December 13.
Ms Von der Leyen said the EU will make vaccines for children as young as five available from December 13, and encouraged member states to vaccinate them
Von der Leyen also said that, with BionTech/Pfizer and Moderna set to deliver 360 million more doses by the end of March, there were boosters available to all those that had received their initial shots.
‘That is good news. So go get it,’ she said.
She added she had understood from drugmakers that they would require around 100 days to adjust their vaccines if their existing vaccines did not protect from the Omicron variant.
Most EU countries have imposed travel bans for residents of South Africa, where the Omicron was first detected, along with surrounding southern African countries.
The Commission also urged EU members to commit to a day-by-day review of travel restrictions and a readiness to impose all necessary controls, including decisive action if clusters of the Omicron variant were found.
Omicron is thought to have emerged somewhere in southern Africa, possibly in Botswana, after a sample taken there on November 9 tested positive for the variant.
Scientists say the variant is the most-mutated form of Covid yet found, and that a number of its mutations are likely to make it more infectious even among the jabbed.
Initial data from South Africa, where most cases have been discovered, suggests this is the case – with infections soaring 400 per cent in a week.
However, it is not yet clear whether the variant causes more or less serious disease, with researchers saying we are unlikely to know for at least a fortnight.
Early suggestions are that it may cause less serious infections, with Germany’s would-be health minister suggesting that may be a blessing in disguise because it would replace the deadly Delta variant with a more-benign virus.
However, world leaders have taken a cautious approach by banning travel to affected regions, rolling out booster vaccines and introducing some prevention measures such as masks and social distancing.