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12 November 2021

As Covid-19 surges in Europe, Emmanuel Macron’s bet on vaccine passports appears prescient

France’s coercive policy turned one of the least vaccinated countries in Europe into one with the highest coverage.

By Ido Vock and Saywah Mahmood

When Emmanuel Macron announced on 12 July that vaccine passports would soon be required for entry to a swathe of venues, from restaurants to long-distance trains, France was one of the least vaccinated countries in Europe. Today, it is one of the countries with the highest rates of coverage in the world: 76.2 per cent of the population have received at least one vaccine dose, ahead of Germany and the UK and just behind Italy.  

Macron did face some opposition. Some politicians argued that excluding the unvaccinated from large parts of public life amounted to de facto mandatory vaccination, an unprecedented infringement on individual freedom. Tens of thousands of people protested in weekly demonstrations against the measure. 

But the policy worked. It nudged many of those who had not yet been vaccinated into getting jabbed. Some anti-vaxxers were coerced into immunisation, bowing to the reality that remaining unvaccinated was too much of a burden to bear. 

The vaccination rate surged following Macron’s announcement of vaccine passports. The share of the French population vaccinated against Covid-19 soon overtook that of other European countries, with some then imposing similar measures. 

Critics suggested this scheme would inflame social tensions by dividing citizens into two classes, but most European leaders have come to see vaccine passports as the most reliable way to boost uptake before an inevitable rise in cases in the autumn. Vaccine passports are now required for entry to venues such as restaurants and bars in most European countries. 

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But other European countries have been less stringent in their requirements than France, where the rules are rigorously enforced. In Germany, rules on vaccine passports vary by federal state. Vaccine passports are rarely scanned, making it easy for the unvaccinated to falsify their certificates to gain entry to venues. In Germany there are no nationwide vaccine mandates, even for healthcare and care home staff.

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As a consequence, Germany is one of the least vaccinated countries in the EU. The contrast with neighbouring France, where vaccine scepticism is especially high, is proof that without extraordinary public enthusiasm for vaccination, coercion is the best way to boost uptake. That discrepancy appears to have had an effect on daily cases, which are stable in France, but have reached record highs in recent days in Germany, where they currently stand at more than 50,000 a day. The Federal Republic’s health minister Jens Spahn has called the current wave “a pandemic of the unvaccinated”.

Some European countries have begun reimposing winter restrictions. The Netherlands will go into a partial lockdown on 13 November, with non-essential shops closing at 7pm, while Austria is set to impose what its government calls a “lockdown for the unvaccinated”, banning those who are not immunised from most venues except supermarkets and pharmacies. If Macron can avoid similar measures, his coercive vaccination policy will be seen as prescient.