How Austria’s attempt to make vaccines mandatory changed the country

Austria’s Covid-19 vaccination mandate, which has since been scrapped, raised many societal issues. The Local spoke to Political Scientist Dr Barbara Prainsack to find out how it has impacted the country.

How Austria's attempt to make vaccines mandatory changed the country
Austria's controversial Covid-19 vaccine mandate led to protests across the country. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

In February, a controversial new law to make Covid-19 vaccination compulsory for all over-18s in Austria was introduced. 

The law, the first of its kind in the EU, was suspended by the government in March, due to the milder Omicron variant and the existing impact of Austria’s vaccination campaign.

The decision will be reviewed in the coming months and the mandate could still be introduced, if necessary.

The vaccination mandate has been a huge issue for Austria, both socially and politically, but what could the long-term impacts be? 

To find out, The Local spoke to Dr Barbara Prainsack from the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna.

UPDATED: Austria to scrap mandatory Covid vaccinations

Attitudes towards vaccination before Covid-19

As with many controversial topics, the Covid-19 vaccination mandate led to months of debate between politicians and experts, as well as protests across the country. 

But in pre-pandemic times the topic of vaccination in Austria was not so contentious, so what happened?

Dr Prainsack told The Local: “Attitudes towards vaccination weren’t as politicised as they are now [before the pandemic], but that applies to many countries as well. 

“In Austria, a lot of anti-vaccination sentiment comes from esoteric circles and the German speaking world has a long tradition of different groups idealising an untainted nature. 

“There are some good things that come out of it, such as organic farming, but one effect is that people idealise the natural course of things and don’t want to inject anything artificial into the body.”

READ MORE: Could Austria’s mandatory Covid-19 vaccination return in autumn?

A study by the University of Vienna found that people’s attitudes towards the Covid-19 vaccination are largely influenced by their previous experiences of vaccination. 

For example, some people that accepted the Covid-19 vaccine had an acceptance of vaccination in general. Whereas those with a rejection of all vaccinations, or concerns about the approval process, were more likely to reject the Covid-19 vaccination.

The study also revealed that trust in institutions can impact attitudes towards the Covid-19 vaccination, something that has deteriorated in Austria over the course of the pandemic.

Dr Prainsack said: “We had a very high approval rate of pandemic management in the beginning then it declined sharply from as early as summer 2020. 

“Trust in pandemic management and in government and other institutions has declined drastically since the early days and it’s now very low.”

In a February 2022 Statista survey, 69 percent of Austrian residents were less satisfied or not satisfied at all with how the federal government was handling the pandemic.

What caused the backlash against the Covid-19 vaccination mandate?

Figures from the Austrian Corona Panel Project (ACPP) show that the vaccination rate and the willingness amongst Austrian residents to get vaccinated stagnated at the start of 2022 – just before the mandate was set to become law.

It was also around this time that some provincial governors and health experts expressed concern about the mandate, and weekly anti-vaccination protests were held in cities like Vienna.

Additionally, a poll for Profil magazine in January revealed that 51 per cent of those surveyed were against mandatory vaccination.

Dr Prainsack describes the backlash as “absolutely predictable” and says a more communicative approach to boosting vaccination rates could have been more successful.

READ ALSO: Reader question: What are Vienna’s new Covid measures?

She told The Local: “The people who already rejected vaccination were very much against it, but the people who were in the middle – those who were hesitant with concerns – would have benefited from sitting down with a doctor to answer their questions. 

“Instead, the government told people they had to get vaccinated, so people thought there must be something wrong with the vaccination for there to be a mandate, which meant the sceptics were right.

“The mandate didn’t convince the anti-vaxxers and it lost the support of many of those that were sceptical but might have eventually got vaccinated if there wasn’t a mandate.”

According to Dr Prainsack, the pandemic and debates surrounding the mandate has increased the politicisation of vaccination in Austria, and resulted in less attention being placed on other societal concerns.

She said: “The mandate changed Austria in the sense it has contributed to the further politicisation of vaccinations, and the radicalisation of vaccination opponents

“As a society, we lost a lot of time discussing a vaccination mandate instead of discussing more important issues, such as, how do we protect people who are vulnerable besides increasing vaccination uptake?”

What could be the long-term impacts on Austria?

The Covid-19 vaccination mandate might be suspended for now, but the episode has left questions about the long-term impacts of the controversial measure in Austria.

Dr Prainsack said: “This will depend on the political situation and if the government now tackles the important issues, learns from their mistakes and drops the idea of the vaccination mandate. 

FOR MEMBERS: Seven ways the Covid-19 pandemic has changed Austria

“I’m not saying that vaccination is not important – it’s possibly more important than ever. One reason Omicron is less severe is due to immunity from vaccination, which means less people are being hospitalised.

“We should continue to think about how to get more people vaccinated but also consider issues like moving people above the poverty line, and helping people that need psychological support, childcare or affordable housing. 

“These issues are relevant for the next healthcare crisis – and they should be high on the agenda of the government.”

Since the suspension of the mandate, the federal government has launched a new campaign to encourage more people to get vaccinated under the slogan #GemeinsamGeimpft (vaccinated together).

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What to know about Austria’s new advice on Covid vaccines

As the coronavirus pandemic progressed, each country developed its own vaccination recommendation, which often changed. Here is the new advice from the Austrian vaccination panel.

What to know about Austria's new advice on Covid vaccines

The Austrian National Vaccination Panel has updated its recommendations on Covid vaccination on several points, the Ministry of Health announced.

“Special attention continues to be paid to the completion of the basic immunisation, which is recommended for all persons five years of age and older, and to the booster vaccination,” according to the Ministry of Health.

The booster shot is generally available to all persons 12 years of age and older and is free of charge, but it is especially recommended for persons 60 years of age and older and those at risk.

READ ALSO: Masks against Covid and flu: What’s ahead for Austria this winter

In Austria, the basic immunisation against Covid-19 consists of three vaccine doses. A fourth dose, also known as a booster shot, is also recommended.

What is new in the recommendation?

Austria is adding a new coronavirus vaccine, from Sanofi (VidPrevtyn Beta), to the list of offers against the virus. The new vaccine is protein-based and has already been approved by the European authorities. 

In Austria, the Sanofi vaccine can be used from the third vaccination onwards on people older than 18. The offer will be available at the vaccination sites in the coming week at the earliest, according to the Ministry. 

READ ALSO: Colds and flu: What to do and say if you get sick in Austria

Another change is that the variant Comirnaty Original/Omicron BA.4-5 from BioNTech/Pfizer will also be used for the third vaccination of children aged 5 to 11 years. 

This vaccine is specially adapted to the virus variants Omicron BA.4 and 5. It is now available for children in a special application shot that should be in vaccination sites starting next week at the earliest. 

READ ALSO: What to expect from the ski season in Austria this winter

Also included in the recommendations is a clarification specifically on an additional booster vaccination (fifth vaccination). 

People at risk from the age of 18, and those from the age of 60 can receive the additional booster vaccination four months after the fourth vaccination. According to the vaccination panel, no fifth vaccination is necessary for healthy people under 60.