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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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.