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Austria becomes first EU country to make Covid-19 vaccination mandatory

The Local Austria
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Austria becomes first EU country to make Covid-19 vaccination mandatory
Nurse Helmut Beidler (R) welcomes a patient to be vaccinated against the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 on April 2, 2021 in Vienna, Austria, at the country's largest 'vaccination street' situated at the Austria Center. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Austria's parliament on Thursday approved making Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory for adults from next month, becoming the first European country to do so.

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The overwhelming majority of MPs from all parties voted in favour of the law, with the leaders of the opposition Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the liberal NEOS lending their backing to the centre right-green coalition.

The only significant opposition came from the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which has courted anti-vaccination voters.

The law had already been approved by the parliamentary healthcare committee on Monday. It will now come into effect from February 1st.

Some 75 percent of the Austrian population have had at least one Covid-19 vaccine and 72 percent are fully vaccinated, in line with the European average of a full vaccination rate of 70 percent but below several neighbours including France and Italy.

It's taken a raft of incentives, campaigns, and increasing restrictions on the unvaccinated to reach this level.

The government initially wanted everyone aged 14 and older to be required to get the vaccine , but now the measure only applies to adults, except pregnant women and those with a medical exemption.

"Vaccination is an opportunity for our society to achieve lasting and continuous freedom, because the virus cannot restrict us any further," Chancellor Karl Nehammer told reporters on Thursday ahead of the parliament debate. He acknowledged that the mandate was a "very intensively discussed, a very passionately discussed topic".

FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl railed against the law in Thursday's charged parliamentary debate, claiming it "paves the way to totalitarianism in Austria".

He vowed that he himself would continue to refuse vaccination in defiance of the new law.

Green Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein appealed during the debate on "all citizens to question myths around vaccination", insisting that "all the evidence indicates that the vaccines available in Austria are safe".

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The first fines won’t be issued until mid-March, following an initial focus on informing people about both the new law and the protective effect of the vaccines. Even after March, it will be possible to avoid the fine by getting the Covid-19 vaccine within two weeks. 

Austria will become the first place in Europe except the Vatican City to introduce such a mandate, though other countries have moved in a similar direction. Greece has begun issuing fines to unvaccinated over-60s, Italy has made the jab mandatory for everyone over 50, while a full vaccine mandate for the general population has also been discussed by politicians in Slovakia and Germany for example.

Austria still has a lockdown in place for anyone who has neither proof of full vaccination nor a recovery from Covid within the last 180 days.

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Protests took place in central Vienna during the day on Thursday, but there is a ban on holding protests within 300 metres during a meeting of the National Council which means police have refused permits to several demonstration organisers. 

Some Austrians remain to be convinced of the merits of the vaccination, with a couple of hundred opponents of the law gathering for a noisy protest near parliament on Thursday morning.

Teacher Kerstin said she felt the law ran against the constitution and ignored the fact that "we are meant to have certain basic rights".

Other present maintained that not enough studies have been done into the long-term effects of the jabs and that they would resist paying any potential fines.

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