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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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.