By Nadine Schmidt and Frederik Pleitgen, CNN
Germany on Thursday announced a nationwide lockdown for the unvaccinated, as its leaders backed plans for mandatory vaccinations in the coming months.
Unvaccinated people will be banned from accessing all but the most essential businesses, such as supermarkets and pharmacies, to curb the spread of coronavirus, outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel and her successor, Olaf Scholz, announced Thursday, following crisis talks with regional leaders. Those who have recently recovered from Covid-19 are not covered by the ban.
The pair also backed proposals for mandatory vaccinations, which if voted through the parliament could take effect from February at the earliest.
Under the tightened restrictions, unvaccinated people can only meet two people from another household. Bars and nightclubs must shut down in areas with an incidence rate above 350 cases per 100,000 people over one week. And the country would limit the number of people at large events like soccer matches.
The announcement comes as Germany battles a surge in cases that has pushed Europe back to the epicenter of the pandemic, heightening fears over the newly discovered Omicron variant.
The press briefing is also Merkel’s last before she leaves office; a grim note to end her 16 years as German chancellor.
“We have understood that the situation is very serious and that we want to take further measures in addition to those already taken,” Merkel told reporters at Thursday’s news conference. “The fourth wave must be broken and this has not yet been achieved,” she added.
A nationwide vaccination mandate could come into effect from February 2022 — after it is debated in parliament and following guidance from Germany’s Ethics Council, Merkel said.
She added that vaccinated people will lose their vaccination status nine months after getting their last shot, apparently in an effort to encourage booster uptake.
Europe mulls mandates
If approved, Germany’s vaccine mandate would follow in the footsteps of neighboring Austria, which also plans to make inoculations for eligible adults compulsory from February.
Elsewhere, Greece announced that vaccines would be mandatory for people aged over 60 from mid-January. Those refusing to do so would face 100 euro (US $113) fines for each passing month, the government said Tuesday.
European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it was time to “potentially think about mandatory vaccination” within the bloc, as it faces the double onslaught of a fourth coronavirus wave and concerns over the Omicron variant discovered by South African health officials last week.
“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,” von der Leyen told a press briefing Wednesday.
“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 led,” she added.
Germany, much like Austria, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in western Europe, with 68.4% and 65.6% of their populations fully vaccinated respectively, according to the ECDC.
Germany continues to see a record-breaking number of cases, particularly in its eastern states. On Wednesday, the country recorded 446 Covid-19 related deaths — its highest number of daily deaths in nine months.
Many hospitals are struggling to cope with the increasing number of intensive care patients. There could be around 6,000 Covid-19 patients in intensive care by Christmas — regardless of any measures implemented by Germany’s leaders — the country’s Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency (Divi) warned Wednesday.
Already, more than 102,000 people in Germany have died as a result of coronavirus, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the national disease and control center.
An earlier version of this story understated the amount of fully vaccinated people in Germany and Austria. This has been corrected.
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CNN’s Sheena McKenzie contributed to this report