Austria has suspended its Covid-19 vaccine mandate, a week before it was due to come into effect, saying it was a “disproportionate” measure given most current cases involve the less-severe Omicron variant.
The announcement came as Austria registered nearly 48,000 new cases within 24 hours on Wednesday, a new record and up 55 per cent in a day.
From next Tuesday, Austria was set to be the EU’s first member to mandate a Covid-19 vaccination for all over 18, with fines of up to €3,600 and exceptions only for pregnant women and the seriously ill.
The mandate was highly controversial and condemned by the far-right opposition Freedom Party (FPÖ) as unconstitutional.
On Wednesday morning Vienna said its last-minute U-turn, a month after the mandate was passed by parliament, was based on a government commission report.
Austria’s minister for constitutional affairs Karoline Edtstadler said the report had made “many arguments that the encroachment on fundamental rights is not justified”.
The report “expresses very clearly” that vaccination is an effective and “proven remedy” against disease, she said, but that it was necessary to react to events.
“Just as the virus is very flexible, we have to be flexible and adaptable,” she said. “I don’t think I need a crystal ball to tell you that today’s isn’t the last chapter we will write regarding the vaccination mandate.”
With the suspension to be reviewed in June, Austrian health minister Johannes Rauch urged people to get vaccinated regardless. The 25-page commission report says new variants are “very likely” after the summer meaning further lockdowns cannot be ruled out.
The four-member commission says a mandate was “not appropriate” at present and, to maximise protection, made more sense closer to a new wave.
“The basic obligation to vaccinate as a tried and tested means of ensuring a high vaccination rate still makes sense in principle in order to avoid overloading the health system,” the authors add.
Low vaccination rate
One reason for the mandate was Austria’s relatively low vaccination rate by EU comparison: 70 per cent of the population have received two Covid-19 vaccinations while 57 per cent have a booster jab.
The Austrian government hoped that last month’s vote for a vaccine mandate would spark a surge in jabs, but only 26,000 people have come forward in the meantime.
The mandate allowed for police to check people’s vaccination status in traffic checks. Those without proof of vaccination would face immediate fines of €600, potentially increasing if they took legal action.
Opponents of the vaccine mandate were quick to point out that the measure was postponed but not cancelled. FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl framed the decision as down to the “success of FPÖ policy and pressure from the street”.
Neighbouring Germany is also debating a vaccine mandate, with first readings of several proposed Bills tabled for a first reading in the Bundestag in early April. A mandate for particular professional groups, in particular nursing and care staff, will be debated on March 17th.