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How rising infections prompted a European crackdown on vaccine refuseniks

Angela Merkel urges population to get vaccinated as Emmanuel Macron’s latest move sparks protests

As the Delta variant spreads rapidly throughout Europe, governments have stepped up efforts to promote vaccination against Covid-19. 

On Thursday, Angela Merkel said that the “exponential growth” of Germany’s recorded Covid-19 cases has reached a “worrying momentum” which is being “driven by the Delta variant”. As of 12 July, the variant accounted for 74% of new cases recorded in Germany, compared to France’s 67.5% – and the UK’s soaring 99%, according to Oxford University tracking.

Appealing to German citizens, Chancellor Merkel said: “Every single vaccination counts… The more people are vaccinated, the freer we will be, not just as individuals but as a community.” 

The French population also received more of a “jolt” this week. President Emmanuel Macron referred to vaccination as “a civic duty” and “abandoned a pledge that he would never impose vaccination”, The Times reports. 

Earlier this month, Macron made it compulsory for healthcare workers to be able to provide proof of vaccination by 15 September. This followed the lead of Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who imposed the measure for Covid vaccinations back in April. Greece and Latvia followed suit this week. 

Infection levels

Confirmed Covid cases have risen rapidly in Greece and France this month, from 41 and 28 cases per million respectively at the start of the month to 254 and 213 on 22 July – though neither comes close to the UK’s 685.

However, Spain’s fifth peak is following a similarly sharp trajectory to the UK’s, with almost four times the number of cases recorded this week compared to 1 July. In Italy, cases are still comparatively low at 57 per million, and Germany’s rate is 17.

The Financial Times (FT) reports that “across France’s 30 biggest hospitals, every intensive care patient had not been vaccinated”, according to the French government. In Greece, where deaths from Covid-19 are closer to UK levels than Italy, France and Germany, “the figure is 99%”. 

Less than half of the French population are fully vaccinated, and 13.7% are partially vaccinated. The figures are similar in Italy, where 46.5% of the population have received both vaccine doses. Germany’s fully vaccinated percentage is higher at 48.2%, but the number of single jabbed is 12%. 

Carrots and sticks

US medical officials have offered some unconventional incentives for getting vaccinated, from free beer to childcare. Professor Adam Finn, from the UK's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, says this should not be necessary. Professor Finn says the most successful vaccine programmes “don’t have to provide sticks or carrots”, but instead use clear communication, says the FT.

Merkel warned this week that “Germany is unlikely to return to normality without a rise in vaccinations” and noted that precautionary rules will remain in the country, including the wearing of face masks and social distancing.

She also appeared to encourage the power of word of mouth for promoting vaccination, The Times reports, saying: “Talk to each other in the family, in the football club, everywhere where people know and trust each other.” 

Bloomberg’s Caroline Connan describes France’s latest approach as “radical” after a digital health pass, in the form of a QR code, was made mandatory from 21 July for access to cinemas, museums and sporting events.

It is on course to be extended to hospitality venues and shopping centres in August, but the measure has been met with resistance from the tourism industry. “Thousands of protesters” have taken to the streets, with some saying France has become “a dictatorship”, the FT says. 

However, Bloomberg’s reporter said many are “in favour” of the requirement, “especially at a time when the Delta variant represents about 80% of new cases in France”.

Indeed, “data from France and Italy suggests governments’ coercive approach is yielding results”, the FT says. In France, more than 3 million vaccine appointments have been booked this week, with more than half being people under the age of 35 “who had previously been slow to seek vaccination”. Plans to end state funding for coronavirus tests from the autumn may provide further incentive too.  

Italy’s plan also focuses on restricting access to hospitality and leisure activities to people who can provide proof of vaccination. On Thursday it was decided that from 6 August people will need to present a “green pass” to access cultural venues such as museums and theatres, as well as “swimming pools, gyms and sports halls”, Euronews reports.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi referred to the pass as “an instrument to allow Italians to continue their activities with the guarantee of not being among contagious people”. Far-right League party leader Matteo Salvini has criticised the “draconian” measure, but Draghi emphasises the particular importance given the rise of the Delta variant.

Bloomberg’s Connan notes that one thing that Germany, Italy and France all have in common is that “they are watching very closely what is happening in the UK with the Delta variant”. 

Spain’s health minister, Carolina Darias, said this week that 83% of recorded new cases in the country’s fifth wave of Covid-19 have been in unvaccinated citizens. The country has seen infections rise, but the rate has been “gentle” in comparison to earlier waves.

Darias “pointed to the vaccine campaign as being the factor that has changed the nature of this latest spike”, El Pais reports.

The paper says that more than nine million people in Spain have downloaded the European Union’s Digital Covid Certificate, proving full vaccination, a recent negative test result or having recovered from the disease.

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