The president of the European Commission says it is time for EU member states to consider introducing mandatory vaccinations to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Ursula von der Leyen told a press conference on Wednesday that a third of the bloc’s 450 million population was still unvaccinated against Covid-19.
“I think it is understandable and appropriate to lead this discussion now – how we can encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union,” she said.
“This needs discussion. This needs a common approach. But it is a discussion that I think has to be led.”
She said that while more information was needed to assess the threat posed by the Omicron variant, "we know enough to be concerned".
She said that the EU was "hoping for the best" but "preparing for the worst".
Ms von der Leyen's suggestion on vaccines is likely to gain support from some member states. Germany is already showing signs of following Austria’s path by making Covid-19 vaccines compulsory, as the incoming chancellor on Wednesday threw his support behind the initiative.
Olaf Scholz wants a parliamentary vote on the issue before the end of the year as the country battles a fourth wave of the virus. If approved, compulsory shots could begin as early as February.
"I will vote for it," Mr Scholz told Bild television. He said he also wanted to accelerate Germany's booster shot campaign.
Despite previous assurances that Covid-19 vaccines would be administered on a voluntary basis, there has been growing consensus for a mandate.
In November Austria became the first European nation to announce mandatory vaccines to tackle a surging infection rate. Governments across the continent will be watching closely to see how the measure develops from February 1.
Mr Scholz, a Social Democrat, will be sworn in to replace Angela Merkel as the leader of Europe’s largest economy at a ceremony next week.
Germany’s federal and regional governments on Tuesday agreed to step up the vaccination campaign and restrict social contact, especially for unvaccinated people.
Mr Scholz will join Ms Merkel and the heads of Germany’s 16 states for talks on Thursday to discuss new restrictions, under which are proposed stricter curbs on unvaccinated people, limiting the number of fans at football matches and closing bars and nightclubs in areas with high infection rates.
In the UK, the government has launched a booster shot drive amid the spread of the Omicron variant.
"This isn't a call to arms, but a call to get jabs in arms. And quickly," Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.
But there is confusion after the government announced an expansion of its booster programme, which includes aiming to offer all adults in England a top-up shot by January 31.
There are reports of queues at vaccination centres, while others have been unable to book their shot despite being eligible to do so.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said leaders would decide soon on whether vaccination should be compulsory.
Germany is grappling with an increase in the number of coronavirus cases and deaths.
The country on Wednesday reported 67,186 new infections – up 302 from a week ago – the highest daily figure in nine months, and 446 deaths.
The head of Germany’s Divi intensive care medicine lobby said stricter measures were needed to curb the infection rate and protect hospitals from a “particularly dangerous situation”.
Intensive care unit staff have had to find beds for about 1,400 additional coronavirus patients in the past week, said Divi president Gernot Marx, who also predicted that the number of people needing hospital treatment for Covid-19 would exceed the peak during Germany’s second wave last winter.
“We have to protect our staff and prevent our clinics from collapsing under the pressure,” Mr Marx told ZDF television on Wednesday.
He called for mandatory Covid-19 vaccines for all adults and said the step was needed “not just to break the fourth wave but to prevent a fifth and sixth wave”.
It was revealed on Wednesday that four fully vaccinated people had tested positive for the Omicron strain of coronavirus.
Three of them had returned from a business trip to South Africa on November 26 and November 27 respectively. The fourth person is a family member of one of those who travelled, the public health office in the south-western state of Baden-Wuerttemberg said.
All four displayed moderate symptoms and are in quarantine, the authority said.