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COVID-19 VACCINES

Is Austria’s compulsory Covid vaccination plan in jeopardy?

Less than a week after a nationwide mandatory Covid jab rule was implemented, doubts are emerging over whether it will actually be enforced.

Austria has suspended its Covid vaccine mandate. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)
Austria has suspended its Covid vaccine mandate. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

On Friday, February 4th, Austria’s mandatory vaccination law was given presidential approval, just hours after it was approved by parliament. 

OPINION: Austria’s vaccine mandate is politically high-risk with limited benefits

The law officially comes into force on February 5th, although unvaccinated Austrians have until mid-March to get the jab. 

However, politicians and virologists have raised questions over the compulsory vaccination scheme, putting the controversial plan in jeopardy. 

The governors of the Austrian states of Carinthia, Upper Austria and Salzburg are questioning whether the compulsory vaccination law should come into force in March, or whether other solutions should be pursued. 

The governors expressed doubts due to the relatively stable numbers in the hospitals, which are a combined consequence of the current vaccination coverage as well as the lower potency of the Omicron variant. 

Carinthia’s governor Peter Kaiser of the opposition Social Democrats (SPÖ) party said there should be a “constant review” to see if the law is still proportional.

Salzburg’s governor Wilfried Haslauer, who is in the governing Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) party also called for an evaluation before the law comes into force on March 15th. 

Thomas Stelzer (ÖVP), governor of Upper Austria, said he supported the idea of a vaccine mandate but questioned whether Austria should still go ahead with it. 

Stelzer said he felt such a scheme was “useful, but whether it is really necessary… remains open and should be discussed.”

EXPLAINED: How Austria’s vaccine mandate will work

Virologist Norbert Nowotny believes the compulsory vaccination law is now “no longer really necessary” as hospitals are holding up well during the Omicron wave.

He also suggested waiting until the Novavax and Valneva vaccines are available, which may boost uptake.

He suggested people could be made to pay for Covid tests instead as an incentive to vaccinate.

Sigrid Maurer, chairwoman of the Greens, said however that the law should go ahead. 

“A commission is being set up that is constantly evaluating, but of course the vaccination requirement has been introduced and it applies. The goal is that we are well protected from another wave in the fall,” she said. 

Neighbouring Germany is also wavering over whether or not to go ahead with a nationwide vaccination mandate. 

 

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COVID-19 VACCINES

Austria announces it will scrap mandatory Covid-19 vaccination law

Austria's federal government on Thursday announced it would scrap its controversial mandatory Covid-19 vaccination law.

Austria announces it will scrap mandatory Covid-19 vaccination law

Austria will cancel its mandatory Covid-19 vaccination law, the federal government announced during a press conference on Thursday.

The controversial law had been suspended until August after coronavirus infection rates slowed. However, it hadn’t been abolished.

The government could still bring back a set of regulations allowing police to check people’s vaccinated status. Those that could not prove they were either vaccinated, or recently recovered from the disease, would have to pay a fine.

“The omicron variant changed the situation”, health minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) said.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

He added that the law was introduced in a different context and was supported by “a clear majority” at the time when hospitals were full and “intensive care units were on the limit”.

The minister said that the new variant has reduced the effectiveness of vaccination against infections and has caused less severe courses of the disease.

“Even people who are willing to vaccinate in principle are now more difficult to convince of the need for a third dose”.

Rauch said the obligation to vaccinate did not increase the take up of the Covid jab. Instead, it “opened deep trenches in Austrian society”, according to the minister.

The controversial law provoked numerous street protests throughout Austria after it was announced.

The minister said that the obligation itself even made some give up on their intent to get the jab.

Living with Covid

The new variants bring a new scenario to Austria and people will need to learn to coexist with the virus, according to the health minister.

“Living with Covid means that we will bring forward a comprehensive package of measures, and today that means the abolition of compulsory vaccination,” Rauch said.

READ ALSO: Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

The minister reiterated that vaccination is essential, especially as it helps prevent hospitalisations and more severe disease courses. He added that there should be an extensive vaccination campaign before Autumn and an expected winter Covid-19 wave.

Currently, about 62 percent of the Austrian population has a valid vaccination certificate. However, the number has decreased as people fail to schedule booster, or a third-dose, appointments.

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 was purely “informational”, and Austrian residents received letters explaining vaccines and the regulation.

A second stage, when people could have been fined if 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.

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