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Compulsory vaccination rules come into force in Austria

It's official: From Saturday, Austrians over the age of 18 must be vaccinated against Covid-19 or face the possibility of a heavy fine, an unprecedented measure in the European Union.

A patient receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech (Comirnaty) Covid-19 vaccine.
A patient receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech (Comirnaty) Covid-19 vaccine. Austria's parliament approved in a vote on January 20th, 2022 the introduction of mandatory Covid-19 vaccination, becoming the first European country to do so. (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD / AFP)

The new measure, adopted on January 20th by Parliament, was signed into law by President Alexander Van der Bellen on Friday, the culmination of a process that began in November in the face of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

The government decided to pursue its new tougher approach despite criticism within the country.

“No other country in Europe is following us on compulsory vaccines,” said Manuel Krautgartner, who has campaigned against the new approach.

In neighbouring Germany, a similar law championed by the new Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz was debated last month in the Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, but has not made progress yet due to divisions within the political class.

Checks from mid-March
Despite the threat of such a drastic measure, the vaccination rate in Austria has still failed to take off, languishing below the levels seen in France or Spain.

The humanitarian association Arbeiter Samariter Bund, which oversees some vaccination sites in the capital Vienna, said there had an uptick in turnout this week.

“We recorded a small increase of around nine percent compared to last week,” the organisation’s manager, Michael Hausmann, told AFP.

From the average of around 7,000 injections administered every day in the capital, only 10 percent are a first dose, he said.

Erika Viskancove, a 33-year-old accountant, said she came to a vaccination centre situated next to an Art Deco swimming pool to receive her third booster dose.

“I sincerely believe that the law is the best way” to defeat the pandemic, she said, calling on other countries to follow Austria’s lead.

Melanie, a 23-year-old waitress who preferred not to give her second name, said she was mainly there to avoid ending up “locked up at home”.

Non-vaccinated people are currently excluded from restaurants, sports and cultural venues.

But from now on they will also be subject to fines, which Melanie said was “unhealthy”.

The law applies to all adult residents with the exception of pregnant women, those who have contracted the virus within the past 180 days and those with medical exemptions.

Checks will begin from mid-March, with sanctions ranging from 600 to 3,600 euros ($690-$4,100).

They will, however, be lifted if the person fined gets vaccinated within two weeks.

Protect against new variants 
Waiting in the queue, others say they are in favour of vaccination for all.

“We would have finished a long time ago (with the pandemic) if everyone had been vaccinated”, said legal worker, Angelika Altmann.

More than 60 percent of Austrians support the measure, according to a recent survey, but large swathes of the population remain strongly opposed.

For several weeks after the announcement of the new law, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against what they regard as a radical and draconian policy.

Critics have also questioned the need for compulsion given the far milder nature of the Omicron variant.

Conservative Chancellor Karl Nehammer, who leads the Alpine country with the environmentalist Greens, also announced at the same time a relaxation of earlier Covid-19 restrictions.

But for Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein, compulsory vaccination is aimed at both protecting the country against new waves and fighting new variants.

Vaccination passes are now a reality in an increasing number of countries for certain professions or activities.

In Ecuador, it is compulsory, including for children over the age of five, a world first.

Before that, two authoritarian states in Central Asia — Tajikistan and Turkmenistan — mandated vaccination, as did Indonesia, even if less than half the population is actually vaccinated.

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Member comments

  1. It is sad that Austria goes the exact opposite way to many other countries by fining perfectly healthy human beings who do not want to take a vaccine that has been on the market just under 2 years. Hopefully their people wake up and realize that this is not necessary and even at the very least psychologically harmful.

    1. Totally agree. It’s a slippery slope for those who don’t learn from history gladly embrace. I guess 80 years after the fascism of NAZI Germany is long enough to repeat without much opposition.

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COVID-19 ALERT

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.

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