What we know about Austria’s plan for compulsory Covid vaccination

Austria on Friday announced that it would take steps to make vaccination against Covid-19 mandatory, making it the first EU country to announce such a measure for the whole population.

What we know about Austria's plan for compulsory Covid vaccination
People queuing for Covid-19 vaccines after the lockdown for unvaccinated people was announced last week. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

The announcement came at a Friday press conference where the government also announced a fourth nationwide lockdown, would start on Monday.

But Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said that while a lockdown would curb the current fourth wave and ease pressure on overwhelmed hospitals, a higher vaccination take-up rate was needed to limit the spread of Covid-19 “long-term”.

“Despite months of persuasion, discussions, and a range of efforts, we have not succeeded in getting enough people vaccinated,” said Schallenberg. “We have to look reality in the eye.”

Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein had already announced that he wanted to make vaccination against Covid-19 mandatory for workers in the health and care sectors, a measure that has also been announced within different parts of the healthcare sector in Italy, Greece, France, in Belgium and in the UK. In Hungary, the government has announced compulsory vaccination for all state employees.

Stricter mandates have been brought in elsewhere: the Vatican City has made Covid-19 vaccines compulsory for residents and employees, and Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Micronesia, Indonesia and French territory New Caledonia have also brought in compulsory vaccines. 

But Austria is now the first EU country to be planning a general vaccine mandate.

According to Friday’s announcement, this would be brought in by February 1st 2022 at the latest, after undergoing preparatory work and an assessment of the legal validity.

Mückstein said the government would be working with lawyers, social partners and other interest groups over the next months on preparing the legislation. 

This means it is not yet clear from which age the mandate will apply, or how exemptions for those who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons will work.

According to Mückstein, the idea is that people who refuse the vaccine would face penalties including fines. He confirmed on Friday afternoon that the penalties would most likely be limited to administrative fines.

The government has already begun discussions with constitutional lawyers who reportedly said that a general vaccine mandate is in principle possible, but the law will need to undergo further reviews before it can come into effect.

As of Friday, health ministry data showed that 69.3 percent of the Austrian population had received at least one Covid-19 vaccine, putting it slightly below the EU average. A total of 65.7 percent are considered fully vaccinated. But that still leaves about a quarter of the population eligible for vaccination who are yet to get the jab.

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Reader question: When should I get a fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine in Austria?

Austria's national vaccination board changed the recommendations for when to get the fourth dose of coronavirus vaccines. Here's what you need to know.

Reader question: When should I get a fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine in Austria?

Over this weekend, Austria’s national vaccination board (NIG) released an updated recommendation on Covid-19 immunisation, changing its previous guidance for the fourth dose of the coronavirus vaccination slightly.

According to the NIG, booster vaccinations can be given to persons aged 12 years and older and are recommended for anyone who wants to protect themselves.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to get the new adapted Covid-19 vaccine in Austria

In particular, the 4th vaccination is advised for persons over 60 years of age, persons at risk of severe disease progression (including pregnant women) and persons with an increased risk of exposure (healthcare workers, people in long-term nursing or care facilities, etc.).

The recommended interval between the third and fourth doses is from six months for people between 12 and 59 years old, NIG said. For those over 60 or risk patients, that interval is from 4 months.

What has changed then?

The main difference is the recommendation for those who have had a Covid-19 infection after their third shot.

“An infection in vaccinated persons usually leads to a booster effect (hybrid immunity), which can affect the optimal timing of the next vaccination.”, NIG said.

However, the board specified that infection could only be “counted” after it was confirmed with a PCR test.

READ ALSO: Austria announces new Covid-19 vaccination campaign

So, if you have had a PCR-confirmed infection after your second or third shot and it was an asymptomatic case, you may follow the regular vaccination scheme. However, you can also postpone your vaccination for up to six months.

If you had a symptomatic case, you may postpone your next dose for up to six months only if you are younger than 60 and not of a risk group.

NIG said: “Persons vaccinated three times who have also had a proven omicron infection show a good booster response and cross-immunity”.

READ ALSO: From inflation to Covid: What to expect from Austria’s winter season

It added: In such cases, especially in persons under 60 years of age, the 4th vaccination within a period of up to 6 months does not achieve any further improvement in immune protection and thus, the 4th vaccination can be postponed accordingly.