KARL LAUTERBACH has his work cut out. The newly appointed German health minister, an epidemiologist trained at Harvard, took over last week at a time when infection rates from covid-19 are hitting record highs. Some overwhelmed hospitals have had to dispatch critically ill patients to other states. And the probably much more infectious Omicron variant, which has only just begun to spread, threatens to make all this much worse.
Throughout the pandemic Mr Lauterbach has been one of the most prominent voices sounding the alarm, and in some ways reality is now even gloomier than his dire predictions. Around 1m Germans are currently infected with covid-19. On December 10th 510 Germans died with or of the disease. Around a quarter of those deaths were in Saxony, the state with the lowest rate of vaccination.
Managing the pandemic this winter is the most pressing of several big challenges facing the incoming government of Olaf Scholz, who was sworn in as Germany’s new chancellor on December 8th. In Mr Lauterbach he has chosen an advocate of strict restrictions on the unvaccinated; the closure of entertainment venues, clubs and bars until the fourth wave of the pandemic abates; and mandatory vaccination. A prolific user of Twitter (there was even a hashtag, #WewantKarl, backing his selection as health minister) and frequent guest on TV talk shows, he has become one of Germany’s best-known covid Cassandras. His strict prescriptions and sombre admonitions have earned him death threats from those who see such ideas as an assault on liberty.
Both the current near-lockdown for the unvaccinated and the discussion about mandatory vaccination are highly controversial. On December 11th thousands of people took to the streets in Hamburg to protest against vaccinations for children and federal and local rules excluding the unvaccinated from restaurants, bars, entertainment venues and most shops. In several smaller German cities opponents of the federal and state governments’ covid policies marched in the streets at the weekend. At least three of the marches resulted in injuries to police officers and journalists. Far bigger demonstrations can be expected if a vaccine mandate for all is introduced, in particular because political leaders have insisted for months that they would not impose such a measure.
Last week the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, voted for a vaccine mandate for health-care workers that will start on March 16th. Mr Scholz has already come out in favour of mandatory vaccination though he said he would allow the government’s MPs to vote their conscience. Representatives of the federal government and the states, who meet regularly, have already announced they will discuss “in the near future” a bill making vaccination mandatory, probably from late February or March. More than 70% of those polled in a recent survey backed mandatory vaccination.
The mandate, if it arrives, will come too late to help suppress the current wave. This means that Germans are again facing subdued holiday celebrations at best. Most Christmas parties and many of the country’s pretty outdoor Christmas markets have been cancelled. Volker Wissing, the new transport minister, has already advised against travelling during the holidays. America’s State Department and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have moved Germany to their highest-risk category for travel, which means that even vaccinated Americans are advised not to go there.
Stephan Weil, the premier of Lower Saxony, has announced a “quiet period” from December 24th to January 2nd that includes the closure of all Christmas markets, discos and clubs. Gatherings of more than ten are allowed only if everyone is either vaccinated or immune through recovery as well as tested. Other states are likely to follow Lower Saxony, which has lower rates of infection and death than many other states.
Mr Lauterbach is now trying both to stress how serious the current outbreak is and to tone down the debate on how to fight it. He re-tweeted a chart on December 11th that shows how the Omicron variant, even if much milder, could lead to many more deaths because of its higher transmission rates. In an interview with Spiegel, a weekly, he said: “From what we know so far, the new Omicron variant is affecting children much more strongly than the previous variants.” They also fall ill more severely, he added, urging parents to vaccinate children older than five. At the same time he said that “nobody is going to be sent to jail” for resisting mandatory vaccination, though refuseniks will have to pay a fine. At what level a fine will be effective, if there is to be one, will be determined by consulting economists and psychologists.
Mr Lauterbach’s strategy for breaking the fourth wave is a rapid ramp-up of booster shots as well as introducing mandatory vaccination. On a popular talk show on December 12th he argued that, had it not been for the Delta variant, Germany could have managed without mandatory vaccination. The Delta and especially the Omicron variants have made it unavoidable, he said. “Even a vaccination rate of 90% among adults is not enough against Omicron,” he argued, since the vaccine does not offer watertight protection against infection.
Most new government ministers get a short honeymoon when they take over so they can get to know their portfolio. Mr Lauterbach did not get a single day. His handling of the pandemic will determine the verdict on Mr Scholz’s first year in office—and maybe even his entire term.