Live updates: follow the latest news on Covid-19 variant Omicron
Compulsory Covid-19 vaccines should be a “last resort”, the World Health Organisation has said.
Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO’s Europe director, said that Covid cases are spreading rapidly among young children – sometimes two or three times faster than in the general population.
“Mandates around vaccination are an absolute last resort and only applicable when all other feasible options to improve vaccination uptake have been exhausted,” he said.
“They have proven effective in some environments to increase vaccine uptake, but the effectiveness of mandates is very context specific.”
Dr Kluge said the impact that mandatory vaccines could have on “public confidence and public trust” must be considered.
“Ultimately, mandates should never contribute to increasing social inequalities in access to health and social services,” he said.
Dr Kluge said the “principle is that we have to do everything possible to convince the people. The percentage of people who are hardline anti-vaxxers is ultimately small.
"Often people have legitimate questions, and the communication and information is very important.”
Germany and Austria are two countries that have begun laying the groundwork for mandatory vaccines. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said it may be time to discuss the matter.
Any mandate would probably be fiercely contested by some and result in protests.
Dr Kluge said improved ventilation and the use of masks should become the norm in primary schools, noting that Covid-19 cases had increased “across all age groups, with the highest rates currently observed in the 5 to 14 years age group”.
“It is not unusual today to see two to three times higher incidence among young children than in the average population,” he said.
Dr Kluge said the health risk extended beyond children to family members who may be at great risk.
The WHO's Europe region comprises 53 countries and territories, including several in Central Asia.
Amid the spread of the Omicron variant, 43 countries in the region have imposed travel restrictions, said Dr Catherine Smallwood of WHO Europe.
“Disease outbreaks are contained at their source, not at their borders,” she said.
“And travel bans, though they may be easily accessible in terms of political decision-making, they are not effective in preventing the spread of disease. They really are not effective.”
Dr Kluge said it was still to be seen if Omicron is more transmissible or more severe than previous coronavirus variants.
The spokesman for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that it is "too early to draw conclusions on the characteristics of Omicron but early indications were that it is more transmissible" than the dominant Delta variant.