UPDATED: Austria to scrap mandatory Covid vaccinations

Austria's controversial mandatory vaccination plan will be suspended, with authorities saying it is "not necessary" at the present time, but may need to be implemented in the future.

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

Austria will suspend its compulsory vaccination policy, Constitutional Minister Karoline Edstadler (ÖVP) announced to the press early on Wednesday.

“After consultations with the health minister, we have decided that we will of course follow what the (expert) commission has said — we will suspend mandatory vaccination,” minister Karoline Edtstadler told reporters after a Cabinet meeting.

The burden on fundamental rights is not “necessary” at the moment, she added. 

EXPLAINED: How Austria’s vaccine mandate will work

The decision was taken after evaluation of a report by Impfpflichtkommission, a special commission set up to determine whether Austria’s law mandating its residents be vaccinated against Covid-19 is necessary and legally justifiable. 

The law will be “put on hold”, the minister together with Austria’s new Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) announced.

Though the rules do not apply, they want the flexibility to be able to react to any situation and the provisions could be reactivated if deemed necessary, the ministers said.

Austria’s vaccination law entered into force on 5 February.
Still, it had been only in the first stage, with residents receiving informational letters on vaccines against Covid and the law itself.
Currently, the alpine country has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe, with just under 70 per cent of its people fully vaccinated. Austria has averaged 4,557 vaccines per day in the last seven days, most of them given as a third-dose or booster shot.

However, the situation in hospitals has not been as alarming as in previous waves of the pandemic, the authorities have said. The number of people treated in intensive care is currently at 195. 

Besides that, they mentioned the development of medications against Covid and the fact that, despite lower rates compared with other countries, most of the population is vaccinated.

READ MORE: Will Austria’s vaccine mandate go ahead?

The course of the omicron variant, deemed more contagious but less deadly, was also a factor, Edstadler said, but the authorities “would remain flexible and adaptable, just as the virus”, she added.  

The ministers stated that the health and pandemic commission would evaluate the epidemiological situation every three months to determine if the circumstances have changed.

The commission includes epidemiologist Eva Schernhammer, infectologist Herwig Kollaritsch, constitutional and medical lawyer Karl Stöger and legal scholar Christiane Wendehorst.

Law provisions and vaccination appeals

The ministers reiterated that the possibility of suspending the law had been in the legal text already. Now, the Health Ministry needs to issue a decree halting the second phase of the compulsory law. Minister Edstadler confirmed the next steps would be taken soon. 

The second stage of the law was set to start in mid-March, when unvaccinated people could be fined during routine checks, such as traffic controls. Fines would start at €600 and reach as much as €3,600 per year. 

Austria was one of the first countries to announce such a mandate.

It had sparked controversy, with vaccine-sceptic groups and right-wing parties organising weekly protests in the capital Vienna. Since coming into force, in early February, the vaccination rates had not even increased by 0.5 percent.

A third phase of the vaccination mandate included automatic checks through Austria’s federal vaccination registry, a highly controversial move that didn’t have a set date to begin and now looks even more unlikely to take place. 

Regardless, the Minister of Health Rauch kept the appeal for people to get vaccinated and stated that a new variant could appear in autumn.

“We don’t know how the virus will continue to behave”, he said. 

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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.