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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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.