These aren't mandates. Not formally. But in practice, some of the measures come close.
In contrast with the U.S. states that have explicitly banned vaccination mandates or passports, the European Union is using digital covid certificates, with scannable QR codes that quickly show if someone has been vaccinated, tested negative or recovered from covid-19. The certificates were designed with the primary goal of easing movement across borders, but many E.U. countries are using them internally, as well.
In Germany, vaccinated people have gained privileged access to restaurants and bars that would otherwise require a recent negative coronavirus test. Some of those restrictions have now been lifted because of low caseloads. But rules could be tightened again, as the European CDC predicts incidence rates across the bloc to triple within the next two weeks because of the delta variant.
German officials have vowed that vaccinated people would not be significantly affected by a fourth-wave lockdown.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron announced this past week that people would have to flash their certificates before entering trains, planes, restaurants, cafes and many other places starting next month.
As in Greece and Italy, vaccination would become mandatory for health workers in France by fall. Most everyone else here would still be in a position to decline vaccines. But the unvaccinated would be largely excluded from social life unless they meet the covid recovery exception or get tested every 48 hours.
In addition, coronavirus tests would no longer be free, unless prescribed by a doctor.
The French government says the measures are essential to revive a flagging inoculation campaign — which had stalled at around 53 percent for first shots — and to prevent a deadly fourth wave of the virus.
“We must move toward the vaccination of all French people, because it is the only way to return to normal life,” Macron said.
People seemed to get the message. Within hours of Macron’s speech, vaccination booking platforms registered a surge in appointment requests. A record number of shots were administered in France on Tuesday, the day after the announcement.
But thousands of protesters rallied against the measures Saturday, demanding Macron’s resignation and urging the government to reverse its plans. Protests were held in several cities, including Paris, Marseille and Montpellier, drawing the support of politicians from across the far right and far left of the political spectrum. Nearly 114,000 protesters joined marches across France, according to the Interior Ministry.
Protesters in Paris chanted, “No to the health dictatorship!” and “Freedom!”
The French plans constitute “an obligation in disguise,” said Françoise Salvadori, an immunology researcher and author. She added that the proposed changes mark a “clear change in tone” by the president, who vowed in December that “the vaccine will not be compulsory.”
Pharmaceutical industry scandals and a controversial influenza vaccination campaign in 2009 had turned France from one of the most vaccine-approving nations into one of the most skeptical over the past two decades. As a result, French officials launched an extremely cautious coronavirus vaccine rollout — a strategy that was widely criticized by scientists for sending mixed messages on the safety and benefits of vaccines.
Trust in vaccines has since been on the rise in the country, and surveys show a majority of French support the measures announced this past week.
But some research suggests that vaccine mandates can decrease trust in government or in science, and Macron’s announcement was met with angry reactions from some groups.
The far right sought to capitalize on the discontent. National Rally party leader Marine Le Pen called mandatory vaccination for health workers an “indecent brutality.”
Macron also took criticism from the far left, with politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon describing the plan as “presidential monarchy.”
Salvadori said the debate risks politicizing science ahead of presidential elections in France next year.
“I hope that political interests won’t prevail over the discourse of scientific reason,” she said.
There is a similar risk of deepening resentment against the government in Germany, where the anti-vaccine movement has attracted a wide range of supporters, ranging from far-right conspiracy theorists to hippie moms.
But both in Germany and France, experts said, the political risks associated with the recent changes are likely to be outweighed by the potential benefits of higher vaccination rates. Vaccines are now easily available in France, Germany and other E.U. countries, meaning the ethical debate around preferential treatment for vaccinated people has shifted in those nations, too.
“At the beginning, I was shocked when this question came up,” said Tobias Kurth, the director of the Institute of Public Health at the Charité hospital in Berlin. Allowing vaccinated people to resume their lives while their neighbors or colleagues still wait for their shots “runs entirely against my understanding of how society should work.”
But Germany and France are quickly reaching a stage in their vaccination campaigns that resembles the United States’ current dilemma, Kurth said. Whereas only a few months ago, German authorities went to great lengths to prosecute individuals who jumped the vaccine line, they are now trying to convince holdouts. Germans can get vaccines in front of supermarkets, in churches or at the airport.
Still, vaccinations have slowed down.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel excluded the possibility of mandates for certain professions this past week. But earlier this year, she voiced support for a privileged treatment of vaccinated people, saying in an interview that — once sufficient supplies are available — she might be in favor of an announcement that “those who don’t want [the vaccine] perhaps won’t be able to do certain things,” she said in February.
Unlike in France, where the president wields extensive powers, in Germany the 16 federal states are in charge of their own pandemic policies. In some states, there appears to be a growing perception that the scenario Merkel was referring to is quickly approaching.
Unvaccinated employees in the eastern state of Saxony need a negative coronavirus test to return to work after their summer holidays. Meanwhile, the leader of the southern German state of Bavaria has said that only vaccinated people may be able to party in clubs later this year, and that — as in France — unvaccinated people may soon need to pay for their coronavirus tests.
Public health expert Kurth cautioned that putting a price tag on tests that are required to participate in social life risks doing more harm than good.
“The social problems that were already exacerbated by the coronavirus will be worsened even more,” he said.
The debate about tests is not the only controversial question that needs to be resolved. It’s still unclear how vaccinated American tourists will be able to have their vaccination certified in Europe, to receive the QR codes, without first having to go to a French doctor or pharmacy.
Rules for minors remain in flux, with France saying that the planned regulations will be delayed for 12-to-17-year-olds. It is also unclear how French authorities would be able to control whether restaurants or bars are implementing the rules, leading some to wonder whether Macron’s announcement could turn out to have been an empty threat that will be watered down in the weeks to come.
Didier Seyler, who leads a preventive health-care center in southern France, said the current proposals may not be far-ranging enough.
With French people once again partying in bars, clubs and on the streets, “it seems like the lockdown — and everything else — it all happened 10 years ago,” he said.
“I’m willing to bet that in 12 months, we will have a quasi-universal vaccination obligation, given the threat the virus poses to our freedoms,” Seyler said.