BERLIN (Reuters) -German lawmakers agonised over whether to impose compulsory COVID-19 shots on Wednesday, as new record daily COVID-19 infections and the country’s stuttering vaccination campaign forced them into an ethical and constitutional dilemma.
Protesters stood in small groups around the Reichstag parliament building, surrounded by police, as politicians within presented cross-party motions.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz backs compulsory vaccines for over-18s but his coalition government is divided on the issue and he has told lawmakers to vote according to conscience.
“Compulsory vaccination raises difficult and controversial legal and ethical questions,” Bundestag President Baerbel Bas said, opening the debate in which more than 40 lawmakers were due to speak.
The three main proposals under consideration include requiring all adults to be vaccinated, or only those above 50, or merely requiring all those who have not had shots to receive counselling.
Around 75% of the German population have received at least one dose of a vaccine – less than in western European peers such as France, Italy or Spain, where the equivalent figures are 80%, 83% and 86%.
Details of a bill will be finalised after the debate and a draft law should be ready for a parliamentary vote by March.
Many lawmakers, including some from the coalition’s junior partner, the liberal Free Democrats, oppose mandatory vaccines.
They argue it violates the second article of the German constitution, which guarantees citizens control over their own bodies.
One protester bore a banner reading: “The constitution is the red line,” and called a vaccine mandate a “scientific experiment,” not needed by Germany.
Anna Gruenberg, a 23 year-old physiotherapist at the protest said she found the debate “totally disrespectful” to those who think differently on vaccines and the virus.
Axel Schaefer, a lawmaker for the ruling Social Democrats who backs mandatory vaccines, compared the protests to opposition to compulsory small pox vaccinations 150 years ago.
“The experience of that time showed that with this compulsory vaccination against smallpox we saved millions of lives,” he said.
Public discontent over restrictions imposed to curb the pandemic, such as the exclusion of unvaccinated people from many indoor activities, has been exacerbated by the possibility of mandatory vaccines.
The highly contagious Omicron variant has sent cases soaring in recent weeks and on Wednesday Germany recorded a new daily record of 164,000 COVID-19 infections.
German Hospital Federation chairman Gerald Gass said the number of COVID-19 patients in normal hospital wards had increased significantly. In North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, there was a 37% rise in a week and other states would follow suit.
(Reporting by Riham Alkousaa;Additional reporting by Andreas RinkeEditing by Kevin Liffey, Alexandra Hudson)