The EU should consider making Covid vaccination mandatory to battle the spread of the Omicron variant, the European Commission President has said.
Ursula Von der Leyen told reporters that 150 million people in Europe were not vaccinated - around a third of the population - and discussions were needed on how to boost take-up.
Europe has been hit by a wave of Covid cases, leading to fresh restrictions in countries like Austria, Belgium and Portugal.
As of Tuesday, 44 cases of the new Omicron variant had been reported in EU countries, including Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
Austria has already said it will make jabs mandatory from February while Germany's incoming Chancellor Olaf Scholz reportedly supports the idea.
Image:Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Ms Von der Leyen, a former medical doctor, was asked whether she supported mandatory jabs.
She told reporters in Brussels: “We have the vaccines, the life-saving vaccines, but they are not being used adequately everywhere. And this costs … This is an enormous health cost coming along.
“If you look at the numbers, we have now 77% of the adults in the European Union vaccinated or if you take the whole population, it’s 66%. And this means one-third of the European population is not vaccinated. These are 150 million people.
“This is a lot, and not each and every one can be vaccinated – children, for example, or people with special medical conditions – but the vast majority could and therefore, 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, this needs discussion. This needs a common approach, but it is a discussion that I think has to be met."
She said the world was in a "race against time" to battle the virus.
“Scientists tell us we have to do everything possible to make the best out of the time we have till we have certainty about the characteristics of transmissibility and severity of Omicron”, she said.
"Prepare for the worst, hope for the best."
Vaccination policy is decided by individual states, and Ms Von der Leyen added: "It is not for me to make such a recommendation."
In the UK, jabs are not mandatory but being fully vaccinated is now a condition of employment for care workers.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid recently announced that NHS staff in England would need to have had both jabs by April, following a consultation.
However Mr Javid said he did not believe the Government would ever make Covid vaccination obligatory for ordinary citizens.