EXPLAINED: What are Austria’s plans to bring back the vaccine mandate?

Austria's mandatory Covid-19 vaccination law has been surrounded by controversies and a nationwide suspension, but there are indications it may be on its way back soon.

EXPLAINED: What are Austria's plans to bring back the vaccine mandate?
Medical personnel is given the Pfizer-Biontech Covid-19 corona virus vaccine at the Favoriten Clinic in Vienna, Austria, on December 27, 2020 on the occasion of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 corona virus vaccine rollout. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / various sources / AFP)

Even as the number of new coronavirus infections steadily drops in Austria, the country has resumed talks of a Covid-19 vaccine mandate – perhaps not for all citizens, but for some.

Several of Austria’s leading experts have been public about their view that the country should “protect those particularly at risk” ahead of what they view as a likely autumn wave.

Virologist Dorothee von Laer, who has become one of the most widely recognised specialists during the pandemic, has made it clear that compulsory vaccination for those over 60-years-old might be needed if vaccination rates don’t go up in the next few weeks.

READ ALSO: Austria to keep masks only in ‘essential places’ from April 17th

The goal of a vaccine mandate for this group would be to prevent the overload of the health system, as 90 per cent of hospitalised and deceased are over 60, she told the Austrian parliament during a hearing on Covid measures, Der Standard reported.

Vaccine mandate for ‘at risk’ patients

Dr. von Laer is not alone. Also at the hearing and defending a compulsory vaccination for at-risk patients was lawyer Christiane Druml, chairperson of the Bioethics Commission and one of the members of Austria’s GECKO commission – a group of specialists tasked with assessing the pandemic situation and possible measures.

Druml said that compulsory vaccination is also the most extreme measure. Still, vaccination shouldn’t be seen as a private matter. She highlighted that the “principle of solidarity” should be taken into account when it comes to vaccination.

The bioethics expert advised that compulsory vaccination should apply to groups such as health professionals, people over 60 and high-risk patients of all ages, according to statements given to the newspaper Kurier.

Revaluation of the mandate is coming up

Austria’s mandatory vaccination law received presidential approval in early February and came into force. However, as support dwindled, other countries failed to institute similar measures, and vaccination rates continued to stall; the law was suspended just days before a new stage was set to start, one that would have unvaccinated people receive fines at random checks.

READ ALSO: Austria to scrap mandatory Covid vaccinations

The official reason for the suspension, Constitutional Minister Karoline Edstadler (ÖVP) announced in early March, as that the “burden on fundamental rights” of such a measure was not “necessary” at the time, as the omicron wave of the coronavirus resulted in fewer severe cases.

The law itself provided for a suspension, and Health Minister Johannes Ruach (Greens) explained concerns about new variants and seasonal spikes in new infections as winter approaches could lead to a change in policy.

Additionally, experts would have to consider that measures commonly taken to halt the spread of the virus, from mandatory masks to lockdowns, might not be well received after two years of pandemic and summer, basically without any restrictions.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Austria’s vaccine mandate will work

Rauch said that the Austrian vaccination committee would meet again this May to report back to the government to make a new decision over compulsory vaccination.

“Vaccination protects”

Even as the vaccination mandate is seen as a “last resort”, doctors and specialists continue to plead with the Austrian population to get vaccinated.

Health Minister Rauch, on several occasions, reiterated: “the vaccine works, and the vaccine protects”, asking people who haven’t received any vaccination to get their shot and those who haven’t taken their booster to protect themselves.

READ ALSO: Why are the numbers of fully-vaccinated people going down in Austria?

Austria currently has 68.46 per cent of its population fully vaccinated. As more people let their Covid passes expire without taking the third dose, the number decreases. Just under 76 per cent of the population has at least one dose of the Covid vaccine, and 54.4 per cent have received the third dose.

On Thursday, April 21st, the country reported 11,948 new coronavirus infections. A total of 1,704 people were hospitalised with the virus, 172 fewer than the day before, and 130 were in intensive care units.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 17,057 people have died from Covid-19 in Austria.

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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.