Austria increases protection for hospitals and test centres after protests

Austria's government on Wednesday announced the introduction of 'protective zones' around healthcare facilities after people protesting against Covid-19 measures targeted doctors and patients.

Some protests against Austria's Covid measures have targeted healthcare facilities. File photo: Ina Fassbender/AFP

These zones would cover hospitals as well as test and vaccine centres, making it possible for police to remove anyone posing an obstacle to the safe operation of the facility, and to break up gatherings that make it hard to access the site.

The idea of protection zones was raised in December by Austrian Interior Minister Gerhard Karner due to the threat of radicalised Covid vaccination opponents. 

Karner said he did not want to restrict people’s right to protest but said health facilities needed to be “very, very vigilant” to the threat posed by “right-wing marginalised groups”. 

While the majority of the protests against Covid measures – including the mandatory vaccination order – have been peaceful, there are growing fears about radicalisation on the fringes of the movement. 

Several protestors have carried banners liking Covid measures to the persecution of Jews under the Nazis, and even likening Austrian politicians and healthcare workers to Nazi officials.

Demonstrations have taken place directly outside hospitals in cities nationwide, prompting police in Lower Austria for example to strengthen police protection around hospitals.

One medical director in the region told the ORF public broadcaster in December that relatives visiting patients had been insulted by demonstrators, and leaflets had been left on hospital employees’ cars comparing them to Joseph Mengeles, a Nazi war criminal who carried out medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners.

It’s not only hospitals that get this kind of protection, called a Schutzzone in German. One was in place at the Austrian parliament on Thursday as the vaccine mandate law was set to be passed for example, due to a law against gatherings within 300 metres of an in-session National Council meeting. The law is also often used to protect schools and kindergartens.

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EXPLAINED: How Austria’s compulsory vaccine mandate could be back in June

The much-debated policy sparked controversy since before it was approved in February, meaning that May could be a definitive month in the country.

EXPLAINED: How Austria's compulsory vaccine mandate could be back in June

Austria’s Federal Government has a ticking time bomb on its hands: an ordinance that suspended its vaccine mandate law is set to expire by the end of May, which means that the controversial mandatory vaccination would be again in place as early as June 1st.

In order to keep that from happening, Austria’s Health Ministry needs to extend the current regulation or create a new one.

If it doesn’t, the Covid-19 mandatory vaccination law would automatically be back in June.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What are Austria’s plans to bring back the vaccine mandate?

Since, by June, the vaccine mandate stated that non-vaccinated would start getting fines, the resumption of the law would mean that, from next month, those who are not vaccinated could be fined in routine checks, such as traffic checks.

The ins and outs of the vaccine mandate

The law was first introduced in February, even though the technical requirements for it to be enacted were not in place. The first stage of it was purely “informational”, and Austrian residents received letters explaining about vaccines and about the regulation.

A second stage, when people could have been fined if they were not vaccinated, was set to start in mid-March. Before a single person was fined, though, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) suspended the law with an ordinance.

The law was suspended for a variety of reasons, primarily due to the relatively high vaccination coverage the country had already received, along with the lower virulence of the Omicron variant. 

READ ALSO: Austria to scrap mandatory Covid vaccinations

To create a new regulation or extend the existing one stopping people from being fined, Rauch must await the report of the vaccination commission, which should be ready in May, according to the Ministry.

The coronavirus commission will assess whether the Vaccination Act is suitable and useful from a medical and legal point of view. A previous report said there were arguments for and against mandatory vaccination for those who were completely unvaccinated.

READ ALSO: How Austria’s attempt to make vaccines mandatory changed the country

Der Standard reports there is little political support for compulsory vaccination and says there are still technical problems regarding automated fines. However, according to the Ministry of Health, the infrastructure should be completed in June.