The EU must consider mandatory vaccination in response to the spread of the “highly contagious” Omicron Covid variant across Europe, the European Commission president has said.
In a call to action, Ursula von der Leyen said the EU’s 27 member states should rapidly deploy booster doses and a commission communique backed countries opting to temporarily enforce pre-travel PCR tests even within the bloc’s borders.
There have been a total of 59 identified cases in the EU of the Omicron variant all of which have involved mild symptoms or been asymptomatic.
Asked whether she supported the Greek government in its imposition 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: “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.
“One-third of the European population is not vaccinated … not each and every one can be vaccinated – children, for example, or people with special medical conditions – but the vast majority could.
“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.”
On Wednesday, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, an EU health agency, said the potential benefits of vaccinating children aged 5 to 11 should also now be considered, as that age group was making up an increasing proportion of both notified cases and hospitalisations in recent months. The ECDC said there was reason to believe that a vaccination programme among children would have a wider impact on community transmission.
Von der Leyen said: “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.”
Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, defended his government’s decision to impose a monthly fine on citizens aged 60 and over who refuse to be vaccinated. In an address to the Greek parliament ahead of a vote on legislation applying the penalty from 16 January, the centre-right leader described the move as “absolutely constitutional”.
“Compulsory vaccination already has the approval of the Council of State,” he told MPs, referring to the nation’s highest administrative court.
Greece is the first EU member to target a specific age group, with Mitsotakis acknowledging the decision had personally “tormented” him as a “profoundly liberal politician” who struggled with the concept of obligation. But the data, he said, had proved implacable in terms of deaths and the pressure on the nation’s health system.
“Nine out of 10 Greeks who die are over 60 years,” he told MPs, noting more than half a million had resisted vaccination. “More than eight out of 10 have not been inoculated.”
The spectre of the fine, in addition to compulsory rapid tests twice a week, appears to have had a dramatic effect. In the first 24 hours since the drastic step was announced, about 17,500 people in the demographic had registered for a first shot compared with an average inoculation rate among the age group of 2,600 a day, according to government statistics.
Last week, Sajid Javid, the British health secretary, said he did not believe the UK would ever impose mandatory vaccination among the general population.