Germany could make coronavirus vaccination compulsory under plans announced on Tuesday.
Olaf Scholz, who is set to be sworn in as chancellor next week, said his government would put a new law making vaccination compulsory before parliament within weeks. But he pledged not to whip government MPs to support it and to allow them a free vote.
“I will support it as an MP,” Mr Scholz said.
The move means Germany could become the second European country to make the vaccination a legal requirement for all adults, following Austria.
Watch: 'Race against time' as European countries detect cases of new COVID variant
Greece on Tuesday announced it would make vaccination mandatory for over-60s, with tough fines for those who refuse.
In Germany, Mr Scholz has been under intense pressure from regional leaders to order a new national lockdown, but he insisted vaccination was his priority.
“The current issue facing us is vaccination and boosters, which is a huge task,” he told Bild newspaper.
"It is the fact that so many have not been vaccinated that is the reason we have a problem as a country today," Mr Scholz said.
“You can't just watch the situation heartlessly. If we had a higher vaccination rate, we would have a different situation."
The German vaccination rate is around the same as the UK’s, with 68.5 per cent of adults fully jabbed.
But it is lower than in countries like Spain and Portugal and has been widely blamed for a dramatic rise in German infections in the past month.
Public support has surged for compulsory vaccination, with opinion polls putting it at over 70 per cent, compared to just 22 per cent a few months ago.
Mr Scholz set a target of giving 30 million jabs by Christmas, and said compulsory vaccination could be introduced in February or March, once everyone in Germany had been given the chance to be fully vaccinated.
Greece to fine unvaccinated over-60s £85 a month
Greece announced unvaccinated over-60s will be fined €100 (£85) a month if they persist in refusing to get jabbed.
“Unfortunately, of the 580,000 unvaccinated of our fellow citizens over the age of 60, only 60,000 set up appointments to get vaccinated in November,” said Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Prime Minister.
“But it is mainly people over 60 who require hospital treatment and sadly lose their life. These deaths are unnecessary.”
Around a quarter of Greece’s population is unvaccinated. The new regulation will come into effect on January 16, and fines will be added to people’s tax bills.
The death toll from Covid-19 in Greece, which has a population of around 10 million, exceeded 18,000 earlier this week.
Across the country, occupancy of intensive care units is close to maximum capacity.
Austria to fine unvaccinated more than £6,000
In Austria, details emerged on Tuesday of plans for the unvaccinated to face fines of up to €7,200, (£6,127) from February.
Austria was the first country in Europe to announce it would make vaccination compulsory.
Under the draft bill leaked to Die Presse newspaper, all Austrians over the age of 12 will have to be vaccinated unless they have health reasons not to or are pregnant.
'Staggering' surge in infections sweeps South Africa
Meanwhile, doctors in South Africa said they were experiencing a surge of Covid-19 cases linked to the omicron variant.
“We're snowed under. It has exploded around here," Dr Sharony Cohen, who runs a private practice in Johannesburg’s affluent Parktown North suburb, told The Telegraph.
“It is very early days, we will have to wait and see in the next week or two. This appears to be very, very infectious, we are inundated with patients.
“We don’t know what is happening going forward, so this is so stressful, the sheer number.”
Hatzollah, a private ambulance service run by members of the city's Jewish community, has kept meticulous records of Covid-19 infections since the pandemic began.
It reports a “staggering” surge of infections in the last two and half weeks: from receiving no calls about Covid-19 to more than 60 a day.
Based on the current rate of increase, the omicron wave would soon eclipse South Africa's summer delta variant wave in infection numbers, said a healthcare worker at Hatzollah.
But healthcare workers said that so far the cases they were seeing were “mild” and that most of their patients were resting at home with equipment to check their oxygen levels.
They stressed that cases were primarily being found in upper and middle-class neighbourhoods where patients were more likely to be vaccinated and have access to private healthcare.
“The only patients we have had who are not vaccinated are children. So far everyone seems to be ok,” said Dr Cohen.
Experts warned that more severe cases could be going unreported in poorer neighbourhoods and that it was far too early to tell if the variant was more dangerous than delta.
They warned a grimmer picture could emerge when the new variant hits less vaccinated populations.
“Most of the cases… that we know about happened among those who were either vaccinated or had a prior infection or were young.
So most had some immune protection”, said Dr Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
“The variant seems to spread very easily. The problem is that even if many people are protected against a severe form of the disease, it will reach people who are not protected, who are not vaccinated, or people whose protection has waned over time."
Dr Lessels said that omicron would be "even worse" when it spread across Africa, where vaccination rates are lower.
Scientists say omicron is almost entirely behind an explosion of cases in Southern Africa's Gauteng Province, which is home to both Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria.
Over the last two weeks, Covid-19 hospitalisations have tripled in Gauteng to more than 450, according to data from South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
Tshwane, the northern part of Gauteng province, which includes Pretoria, is the epicentre of the omicron spread.
Authorities say that almost 90 per cent of Covid-19 hospitalised patients there are unvaccinated.
South African demographics are different from the UK. Only about six per cent of the population are over the age of 65, meaning that older individuals who are more vulnerable to the virus may take some time to present severe symptoms.
Africa’s most industrialised nation has been hit harder by the pandemic than any other country on the continent.
The country of 60 million people has recorded just under 90,000 Covid-19 deaths since the pandemic began, but excess deaths are thought to be far higher.
The South African Medical Research Council says there have been more than 270,000 excess deaths in the country, almost twice the UK’s figure.
Watch: Greece to fine over-60s for refusing jab