BERLIN — The German parliament on Thursday rejected a draft bill that would have made coronavirus vaccination compulsory from the age of 60 in a defeat for Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his attempt to build a cross-party consensus on the issue.
Of the 683 who voted on the bill, 378 rejected it and only 296 supported it, among them Scholz and Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, who looked visibly disappointed when the result was announced in the plenary.
The outcome came as a major blow to the governing coalition of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), who had been unable to find common ground even among their own ranks on the issue after months of debate.
Lauterbach, who — like Scholz — is a Social Democrat, until recently promoted a strict vaccine mandate for everyone over the age of 18, but failing to gather enough support to put forward such a motion, he eventually folded and got behind the next best strict idea, which also was the only actual draft bill on offer in parliament on Thursday.
“If no one had been vaccinated, we would now have a flawless catastrophe and would be in a complete lockdown — that must be understood,” Lauterbach insisted during the debate before the vote, reiterating his question whether Germans really want to get used to several hundred COVID deaths every day.
Scholz and Lauterbach got behind the proposal to require vaccination for over 60s after it became clear there would be no majority in the free vote to make vaccination mandatory for all adults. Even then the bill, which instead would have required adults below the age of 60 to at least consult their doctor about getting jabbed, fell through.
Although a far cry from his original idea, Lauterbach supported the compromise also because he has long been worried about the more than 2 million unvaccinated Germans over the age of 60 who are at higher risk of suffering bad cases of COVID-19 and could cause a collapse of the health care system if a new wave of infections arrives in the fall.
Due to his repeated warnings of those scenarios, the health minister has sometimes been accused of scare-mongering, particularly by FDP colleagues and opposition politicians.
Meanwhile, a less ambitious proposal by the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian allies from the CSU, with whom they form the largest opposition bloc in parliament, was rejected even more decisively, with only 172 votes in favor out of 678 in total.
Thursday’s vote marked another unfortunate coronavirus milestone for Scholz and his governing coalition formed last November, given they have so far attracted almost only criticism over the issue, be it over apparent infighting or the chancellor’s refusal to take the helm on a vaccine mandate.
It was Scholz who first said the issue should be decided by MPs, leaving it to his health minister to convince enough lawmakers of the importance of a vaccine mandate.
Lauterbach, a popular but polarizing figure, unintentionally enlarged his group of critics earlier this week when he announced on a late-night talk show that he was abandoning a plan to lift compulsory isolation for people with COVID. The U-turn came two days after he had announced an end to isolation from May 1.
“Federal confusion minister,” one German newspaper called him Thursday morning.
Well aware that it was going to be close call in the vote, Scholz summoned Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock back to Berlin to try and tip the scale, forcing her to prematurely leave a summit of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels.
But the move was to no avail — Thursday’s parliament debate only showed how little common ground there is among MPs when it comes to the vaccine mandate.
In what appeared to be a stereotypical German procedure, before they could even get to the vote, lawmakers had to vote on the order in which they wanted to vote on the various proposals put forward by different groups, including a complete rejection of mandatory vaccination by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Even Deputy Parliament President Aydan Özoğuz got exasperated during all the voting. “It would be quite appropriate if you didn’t eat in between the votes or go somewhere else,” she reprimanded.
“And would you please hurry up!”
This article is part of POLITICO Pro
The one-stop-shop solution for policy professionals fusing the depth of POLITICO journalism with the power of technology
Exclusive, breaking scoops and insights
Customized policy intelligence platform
A high-level public affairs network