Olaf Scholz used his first New Year’s address as chancellor to push an ambitious drive to deliver 30m doses of Covid-19 booster shots by the end of January, as Germany braced itself for an upsurge in cases of the highly infectious Omicron coronavirus variant.
In his speech, which was released to media ahead of broadcast on Friday evening, Scholz urged Germans to get their booster shots “as soon as possible”.
“Speed is what matters now,” he said. “We have to move faster than the virus.”
He said Germany had already administered more than 30m jabs since mid-November, “probably more than in any other EU country” and would aim to deliver the same number again by the end of January.
He also called on the millions of unvaccinated Germans to get the jab. Only 71 per cent of Germans are fully inoculated, a much lower proportion than in some other European countries such as Spain and Portugal, and authorities are struggling to convince a hard core of anti-vaccine holdouts.
While acknowledging that some people were worried they could suffer “negative effects” from vaccination, Scholz stressed that almost 4bn people around the world had been inoculated — “without major side effects”. “And countless vaccinated people have become parents of healthy babies,” he added.
Scholz’s speech marks a turning point for Germany. For the past 16 years, Germans have been addressed at New Year by Angela Merkel. But she retired after national elections in September, ushering in a new era in German politics.
The election was narrowly won by Scholz’s Social Democrats, who formed an unprecedented three-way coalition with the Greens and liberals, consigning Merkel’s centre-right CDU/CSU to the opposition benches for only the third time in its history.
Scholz made a reference to the change in his typically understated way. “Today we bid farewell to a year that has brought with it a host of changes,” he said. “One small change is that today I am the one speaking to you on New Year’s Eve as your Federal Chancellor.”
Scholz came to power with a bold plan to green the German economy and improve social justice, but the pandemic has overshadowed his first few weeks in office. Meanwhile, often violent demonstrations by anti-vaxxers and opponents of the coronavirus restrictions continue to rock German cities.
And though there has not been the same massive upsurge in Omicron infections seen in countries such as the UK and France, Germany’s numbers are ticking upwards. Official data showed there were 41,240 new coronavirus infections on Friday, compared with 35,431 a week ago.
But experts say the sharp drop in testing over Christmas means the real numbers could be much worse.
Germany has introduced tight new contact restrictions to combat the spread of Omicron, putting a limit on the number of people who can attend social gatherings. “Tonight we will once again have to do without big New Year’s Eve parties or grand fireworks,” Scholz said.
He reiterated his plan for Germany to achieve climate-neutrality within 25 years, a goal that will involve “the greatest transformation our economy has seen in more than a century”.
He said the country would become independent of coal, oil and gas and “generate at least twice as much electricity from wind, solar power and other renewable sources of energy as we do today”.
Scholz also urged Germans to desist from big New Year’s Eve parties and their traditional firework displays in order to stem the spread of Covid.
He said those who are still unvaccinated “are at particular risk of becoming infected and suffering from long and severe illness”.