Government to push ahead on vaccine mandate

Prime minister Xavier Bettel (DP)--pictured here in December 2021--on Wednesday said the government will submit a draft law to parliament to begin the process of thrashing out a political consensus on a vaccine mandate. Library photo: Guy Wolff/Maison Moderne

Prime minister Xavier Bettel (DP)--pictured here in December 2021--on Wednesday said the government will submit a draft law to parliament to begin the process of thrashing out a political consensus on a vaccine mandate. Library photo: Guy Wolff/Maison Moderne

The government will submit a draft law to introduce a vaccine mandate for over-50s and the healthcare sector, prime minister Xavier Bettel said on Wednesday at the end of a nearly six-hour debate in parliament.

Bettel (DP) last year had requested the exchange with lawmakers as the vaccination rate in Luxembourg stagnated and increasingly restrictive measures--such as the CovidCheck regime--failed to raise the number of vaccinated.

“We need a vaccine mandate in Luxembourg. This question has been answered,” said Bettel after an expert council last week had recommended making vaccination mandatory for residents aged 50 or over and healthcare sector workers. “This position is without an alternative for us. We cannot say that the necessity of a vaccine mandate must be scientifically proven and then, when we have a clear opinion, decide the opposite,” he said.

While vaccination does not fully protect from infection, it protects from severe illness and death, the experts had said on 14 January, with the largest risk group to suffer complications being those over 50. A vaccine mandate would help protect them but also the healthcare sector, the council said. Mandatory vaccination of healthcare staff will meanwhile further help protect vulnerable groups, they said.

“The vaccine works and that’s a reality,” the premier said. “Even if infection numbers are climbing, something fundamental has changed. The situation in hospitals is much better than what we saw last year.”

The coalition parties--the DP, Déi Gréng and LSAP--supported the government’s push forward, which health minister Paulette Lenert (LSAP) called a “last resort”.

Take more time, says LSAP

However, the social democrats demanded more data before reaching a final conclusion. “We’re all sick of the measures and restrictions of our freedoms,” said Yves Cruchten (LSAP). “There is a moral obligation to get vaccinated,” he said, adding that when vaccines were rolled out at the end of 2020, people argued over who would get to go first and there was widespread anger about queue jumpers.

But Cruchten said he would like to see data on the projected impact of a vaccine mandate. A covid-19 task force throughout the pandemic has created projections to assess the potential impact of measures, for example when the government was planning the exit from lockdown in the spring of 2020.

He criticised the expert report for lacking information on long-covid, which also impacts younger people, even if they do not end up in hospital or intensive care at the beginning of their illness. Cruchten cited a newspaper report in the Financial Times that omicron is driving record hospitalisations among children as evidence that the situation and scientific knowledge are constantly evolving.

The LSAP MP said there is no reliable data on the vaccination rate of hospital and care home staff, raising further questions about the potential benefit of a vaccine mandate in this sector. And the impact of the 3G CovidCheck system in the workplace, which came into force on 15 January, is also still unclear.

“We must take the necessary time to answer these questions,” he said, warning against a knee-jerk reaction, despite in principle supporting the decision to start work on a draft law that could be ready before the summer and come into effect to prevent another infection wave in the autumn and winter of 2022.

CSV for general vaccine mandate

“We cannot drag ourselves from wave to wave,” said Gilles Baum (DP). “There is only one way out. The vaccination rate must rise.” Individual rights and freedoms, for example to bodily integrity or choice of medical treatment, in this case are overruled by collective freedoms, the need to protect society and the economy as well as rights to education, culture and health, he said.

“Our freedoms as well as rights are embedded in a context, which cannot consist of an egoistic one-way street, and is always connected with responsibility,” said Josée Lorsché of the greens.

But for the CSV--the biggest opposition group in parliament--the proposals weren’t far-reaching enough. The party suggested a general vaccine mandate for adults, not only residents but also cross-border workers. This would help give the text a more solid legal basis and pre-empt discrimination claims, said Claude Wiseler speaking on behalf of the Christian democrat party.

Wiseler said the expert recommendation is a “first step”, but winning over the CSV will be crucial for the government to win wider support in parliament. The three coalition parties hold a wafer-thin majority of 31 out of 60 votes and Bettel acknowledged that it “wouldn’t be good” to pass this important piece of legislation with such a narrow lead.

The parties agreed that under a vaccine mandate, people should be free to choose their jab, although the health minister said that this would be nearly impossible to achieve as the country can only offer what suppliers are sending.

Fines between €200 and €500 were up for discussion among lawmakers although all agreed that not getting vaccinated shouldn’t be a criminal offence.

Get ahead of the next wave

“We’re not saying ‘no’ to vaccination. We’re saying ‘yes’, but voluntarily,” said Fernand Kartheiser of the right-wing ADR, the only party to completely rule out a vaccine mandate. The MP cited vaccine side effects, the right to bodily integrity and fundamental freedoms in his speech against the mandate.

He said that the mandate couldn’t guarantee that restrictions would actually be lifted. This position was also put forward by left-wing party Déi Lénk. MP Nathalie Oberweis said there is no evidence how the mandate would change infection rates or hospitalisations. She said the party could support a mandate, but that “it must be without alternative.”

The government meanwhile hasn’t done enough to convince people to get the vaccine, especially in disadvantaged communities, she said. The arrival of the Novavax vaccine, which uses conventional technology already applied in other popular vaccines, could also be a game changer and convince sceptics of the mRNA and vector-based formulas currently on the market.

The prime minister said that around 90,000 doses are scheduled for delivery in the first half of this year.

Pirate party MP Sven Clement said the party had put the vaccine mandate to a vote among its members, with 54.08% speaking out against a general mandate. “The position of the Pirate party is clear: ‘Yes’ to vaccination, ‘no’ to a vaccine mandate.”

Clement, too, called for awareness raising and facilitating access to vaccines as a way forward. Should the pandemic situation change, for example in light of new variants, the party would revisit the issue. In any case, a vaccine mandate wouldn’t help with the current wave, he said.

However, the prime minister warned that waiting with a decision until hospitals are once again overflowing would be too late. “We cannot allow ourselves to get into this situation and then it’s too late,” he said. The aim of the mandate would be to get ahead of the next wave, he said, adding that the proposal would be constantly adjusted to take into account the latest scientific findings.

“It’s about saving lives, regaining freedoms and trusting science,” Bettel said to conclude the debate. “The text will be submitted,” he said, but a lengthy process to get the document through parliament and thrash out broad consensus among parties awaits.