Austria has become the first EU country to make the Covid-19 vaccination compulsory for all adults, but questions remain over whether this may sway those who are skeptical about taking the hit and to what extent the Alpine state government is prepared to pressure those who won’t comply.
Austria’s upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, voted 47 to 12 in favor of a blanket vaccination mandate on Thursday night, formally approving a law that will see people over the age of 18 who refuse to take a shot face penalties. up to 3,600 euros, unless they are pregnant or seriously ill.
The law, which will come into effect once it is signed by Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen in the coming days, has been followed with great interest across Europe, where other nations have considered to take a similar action.
Already approved by Austria’s lower house of parliament by a clear majority last month, Austria’s vaccine mandate is set to come into force in three stages.
Every household must be informed of the new law by post by March 15, after which the police will start monitoring people’s vaccination status through spot checks and impose fines of 600 euros, up to 3,600 euros in case of non-compliance.
In the third phase, those who cannot present proof of vaccination within a certain period will be automatically fined, but it is unclear whether the government is still keen to enforce its mandate to such a degree.
In an interview with public broadcaster ORF on Thursday morning, Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein was unable to give a date for the crucial deadline.
As Austria moves closer to a decision on mandatory vaccinations, Chancellor Karl Nehammer’s Conservative-Green coalition government has simultaneously eased restrictions for the unvaccinated.
A ‘lockdown for the unvaccinated’ was lifted on Monday, and shops, restaurants and hotels across most of the country will soon be able to receive visitors who have not received a shot, provided they can show a test result. recent negative test.
Political developments around the mandate have been closely watched in Germany, where government calls for a similar law have become more cautious in recent weeks.
“Since the government announced the mandatory measure in mid-January, it has done everything to undermine, soften and render its own project redundant,” Munich-based German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote in a commentary. “The message is clear: we didn’t really mean it.
Gerald Loacker, health spokesman for the liberal opposition NEOS party, said the waning political enthusiasm for compulsory vaccinations was impossible to ignore.
“What we are dealing with here is a vaccination mandate which comes into effect just as the government allows those who are not vaccinated to walk into a bar with a subsidized free test result and raise a drink to their resistance,” Loacker told the Guardian.
“It’s not a consistent policy, and Austrians are taking note.”
Karl Stöger, professor of constitutional law at the University of Vienna, said the apparent inconsistency was partly a deliberate choice. “The vaccination mandate has legal teeth, but it’s also a law that’s very conscious of the limits of what a state can force people to do,” he said.
Stöger, who advised the government in its handling of the pandemic, said it was possible Austria’s Constitutional Court could still thwart the vaccine’s mandate, especially if an “endemic” virus situation with low hospitalization rates no longer makes vaccinations life-saving.
Like many other European countries, Austria is seeing record rates of Covid-19 infections, but the number of patients in intensive care beds with the virus is falling.
However, with 68.8% of its population having received at least two injections of the vaccine, the government says only compulsory vaccinations will bring vaccination rates high enough to withstand another wave of the virus later this year.
People protest against coronavirus restrictions and vaccine mandate in Vienna Tens of thousands of people protest against compulsory Covid shots in Austria politically difficult for the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) to change its mind without losing the face.
“It feels like the whole of Europe is watching us: a reversal of the government at this stage would be tantamount to a huge loss of face,” said Clemens Schuhmann, a journalist with the Oberösterreichische Nachrichten newspaper.
Yet enforcing the mandate could carry the risk of further stoking divisions in a society already polarized during the pandemic.
Upper Austria, the northern state on which Schuhmann reports, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, with less than 60% of residents fully vaccinated in some bordering municipalities in southern Germany.
“Those who are going to be vaccinated because of the mandate are those who cannot afford to pay the fines,” he said. “The risk is that others will become more radicalized and would rather go to jail than take the hit.”