German Chancellor Olaf Scholz urges faster vaccinations to beat Covid-19

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that vaccines are "the path out of the pandemic". PHOTO: REUTERS

BERLIN (AFP) - German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called on his fellow Germans to get vaccinated against Covid-19 to beat the pandemic and open up opportunities for sweeping economic reforms.

The 2020s will be a decade of transformation as Europe's largest economy pushes to become climate-neutral in about 25 years, said the Social Democrat on Friday (Dec 31), who succeeded Dr Angela Merkel earlier this month.

"We are embarking on a new era - an era that will be good if we actively shape it," Mr Scholz said in his first New Year's speech as the country's chancellor. "It makes a difference if we resolutely take our fate into our own hands."

The pandemic has overshadowed the start of the tenure of the former finance minister. His Social Democrats narrowly beat Dr Merkel's conservative bloc on the promise of accelerating Germany's economic overhaul as climate change and the rise of digital technologies pose risks to its industrial base.

Those ambitious plans have been sidelined as Germany grapples with vaccine shortages, spotty data on infections and increasingly aggressive anti-vaccine protests.

Mr Scholz spent the bulk of his speech urging Germans to stick to pandemic restrictions, including refraining again from big New Year's parties.

He pushed back against vaccine sceptics, saying nearly four billion people worldwide have received a shot and inoculated mothers have given birth to healthy babies.

Vaccines are "the path out of the pandemic", Mr Scholz said. "Now it's about speed. We need to be faster than the virus."

Germany's seven-day infection rate has gradually receded since reaching record levels in late November, but Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has warned that the outbreak might be two to three times worse than official numbers show because of spotty data provided by its decentralised health-care system.

Mr Scholz's new government, which consists of a three-way alliance between the SPD, the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats, will meet with regional leaders on Jan 7 to discuss further steps to fight the pandemic.

German authorities are bracing for a spike from the Omicron variant, which led to surging infections in neighbouring countries such as France, Denmark and the Netherlands.

The highly-contagious strain has stoked concern over the ability to safeguard critical infrastructure if health care staff and police get infected or forced into quarantine. To head off these risks, his administration tightened rules on private gatherings and aims to vaccinate 80 per cent of the population by the end of January, a goal that looks like a stretch amid tenacious opposition to shots among a minority of the population.

Currently, about 71 per cent of Germans are fully vaccinated.

Protests in recent days, especially in the former communist East, have turned violent at times over curbs targeting unvaccinated people and as parliament considers legislation that would make Covid-19 vaccination compulsory.

"Let's pull together to do everything - and I really mean everything - to defeat corona in the new year," Mr Scholz said.

In his speech, Mr Scholz also firmly backed Ukraine by underlining the "inviolability of borders", amid heightened fears of a Russian invasion.

The clear warning to Russia marks a rare message for a New Year's speech typically dedicated to domestic issues.

"With a view on Ukraine, there are currently new challenges here. The inviolability of borders is a valuable asset - and non-negotiable," Mr Scholz said.

Tensions have risen sharply in recent weeks over former Soviet territory Ukraine, with some 100,000 Russian troops massed near the border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin seized the Crimean peninsula from Kiev in 2014 and is accused of fomenting a pro-Russian separatist war that erupted that year in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow describes the menacing troop presence as protection against an encroaching West, particularly the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, although Ukraine has not been offered membership in the military alliance.

Mr Scholz described transatlantic cooperation as indispensable for European security.

But he also called for greater international cooperation and for a "sovereign and strong Europe" capable of standing up for itself.

With Germany taking over the presidency of the Group of Seven from Jan 1, Mr Scholz said he will strive to make the group of wealthy nations "a pioneer for climate-neutral economies and a just world".

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