Austria’s draft vaccine mandate law to be presented next week

Here's what we know about Austria's plans for making Covid-19 vaccination compulsory, after the government held a press conference on Tuesday morning following a summit on the subject.

Austria's draft vaccine mandate law to be presented next week
A lot still remains unclear about how the mandate will work in practice after the government update. Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP

The government confirmed that the law making Covid-19 vaccination mandatory is set to come into effect from February 1st, with a first draft to be presented on December 6th to undergo a four-week review process.

Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein urged people in Austria not to wait until the law comes into force, but to get their vaccine as soon as possible.

“Yes, [the mandate] is in intrusion into fundamental rights and freedoms,” he acknowledged, saying that this was the reason the government is involving a wide range of people in their discussions on the law. He stressed that the law was “the only alternative”, given the efficacy of the vaccines in preventing serious illness and the currently low vaccination rate.

The details were shared at a press conference from Constitutional Minister Karoline Edtstadler and Mückstein, following talks between the government, opposition parties SPÖ and NEOS, and experts, which the health minister called a “fruitful exchange”.

READ ALSO: How will Austria’s mandatory vaccination law work in practice?

Edtstadler confirmed that such a mandate was not a violation of constitutional rights, if it can achieve the goal of protecting national health.

She apologised to members of the public who did not feel they had been “adequately informed” about the vaccine, and said there had been “failures” in this area.

More than 70 percent of Austria’s population has now had at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, but Mückstein said “from an epidemiological point of view, that is not enough” to avoid future lockdowns and pressure on Austrian healthcare.

Beyond confirmation of the timeline, there were few new details on Tuesday about how the law will work in practice, with both ministers stressing that more talks would be carried out with the opposition parties and relevant organisations and experts.

The ministers were asked from what age the mandate would begin, and Edtstadler said this would need to be discussed further before it was decided.

READ ALSO: When will Austria’s lockdown end?

She said that in any case, children in the Volkschule (primary school, usually aged between six and ten) would most likely not be affected by the mandate, and suggested that an age limit of 14 would be possible.

Edtstadler also refused to comment on the potential monetary amount of administrative fines for violations of the mandate, after reports in Austrian media that the amount was likely to be set at €3,600, which could be issued twice to make a total of €7,200.

A reporter also asked whether there was a possibility that if the vaccination rate improved, the law would not be introduced, to which Edtstadler replied: “We see the necessity of a vaccine mandate.”

The far-right Freedom Party was not involved in Tuesday’s discussions, and its leader Herbert Kickl on Tuesday described the government as “stupid and sadistic” in his first speech after being in quarantine for a Covid-19 infection.

The plans for a vaccine mandate have sparked protests across the country over the last two weekends, including some rallies organised by the Freedom Party.

READ ALSO: How Austria’s foreign residents feel about the pandemic response

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Austria in shock over doctor’s suicide following anti-vax abuse

Austrians expressed shock and anger this week over the suicide of doctor who had been the target of a torrent of abuse and threats from anti-vaccination protesters.

Austria in shock over doctor's suicide following anti-vax abuse

The bells of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral rang out in memory of Lisa-Maria Kellermayr on Monday, and hundreds of people held a candle vigil outside, after the 36-year-old doctor was found dead at her practice on July 29.

She had long been the target of death threats because of her criticism of the widespread anti-lockdown protests of 2021.

An autopsy later confirmed that Kellermayr had taken her own life.

Austria has found itself deeply polarised over coronavirus restrictions and in particular a government policy –subsequently dropped — of making vaccination against the coronavirus compulsory.

Kellermayr — whose practice was in the region of Upper Austria where immunisation rates are particularly low — had frequently complained of the menace.

“For more than seven months, we have been receiving… death threats from those opposed to coronavirus measures and vaccinations,” she wrote at the time, sharing a message from one internet user who said they would pose as a patient in order to attack her and her staff.

She described how she had “invested more than 100,000 euros” ($102,000) in measures to ensure her patients’ safety and was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Then, at the end of June, Kellermayr announced on her professional website that she would not be seeing patients until further notice.

Daniel Landau, who organised a memorial vigil for her in Vienna, said that Kellermayr had become a virtual recluse for several weeks. “She didn’t dare to leave” her office, Landau told AFP.

Fanning the aggression

On Saturday, the head of Austria’s doctors’ association, Johannes Steinhart, said that while aggressive behaviour towards medical staff was not new, it had been “fired up and noticeably aggravated” by the debate over Covid-19 and vaccines.

The police, who had previously suggested Kellermayr was exploiting the situation for attention, insist they did everything to protect her. The local prosecutor’s office also rejected suggestions it could have done more.

“As soon as we received the police report (identifying one of the suspects), we sent it over to the relevant authorities in Germany,” spokesman Christoph Weber said.

On Friday, prosecutors in the neighbouring German state of Bavaria said a 59-year-old suspect was being investigated by a specialist hate speech unit.

At the beginning of the week, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen visited the small town of Seewalchen where Kellermayr lived to lay flowers in her memory.

After news of her death broke, he had appealed to Austrians to “put an end to intimidation and fear”.

‘They’re gagging us’

But on some Telegram groups, the hateful messages continue.

“Some people are celebrating her death; others believe the vaccine killed her,” said Ingrid Brodnig, a journalist and author who investigates online disinformation.

“Stricts laws exist” already against online hate, but not enough is done to implement them, Brodnig said.

One government minister has floated the idea of a separate prosecutor’s office to target such cases. Doctors and researchers have also been targeted elsewhere.

French infectious disease specialist, Karine Lacombe, described how she had been vilified for her work as part of a collective of doctors combatting coronavirus-related disinformation.

She, too, complained that the response from the authorities in the face of threats was not robust enough, and has scaled down her public appearances this year.

“You end up thinking that the risk isn’t worth it,” she told AFP. “In that sense (the aggressors) have won, they are gagging us,” she said.