Austria is set to end its mandatory Covid-19 vaccination policy, as part of a new package of measures enacted for Austrians to adapt to ‘living with Covid’.
The controversial mandate, which had been recently suspended, divided Austrians – with many citizens turning out to protest against it. Austria was the only country in the European Union to enforce mandatory vaccination for all adults over 18, and fines for the unvaccinated could be as high as €3,600 under the now-scrapped legislation.
The law was suspended on 9 March by the country’s Government, with a commission of experts re-evaluating the situation earlier this month. The reassessment came amid intense social debate over the law.
Health Minister Johannes Rauch announced the development in a news conference on Thursday, stating:
“We have decided as a government to do away with the vaccine mandate. Living with COVID means that we will bring forward a comprehensive package of measures, and today that means the abolition of compulsory vaccination”.
Rauch admitted the mandate did not work, stating: “No one is getting vaccinated because of the compulsory vaccination”. He said that people had to be convinced to get vaccinated of their own free will, adding: “And we can only achieve this, when it is on a voluntary basis”.
Defending the law, however, Rauch insisted that it was backed by “a clear majority” at the time of its introduction, and when hospitals were full and “intensive care units were on the limit”. Explaining the decision to scrap the mandate, the Minister also said that the omicron variant had reduced the effectiveness of vaccination against Covid-19 infection, and had resulted in less severe courses of the virus.
Reports state that the initial plan was to threaten those who refused to get a Covid-19 vaccine with a fine, as of 15 March – however, by the beginning of March it had become apparent that very few people were paying the steep financial penalties, and the law was suspended.
In an indication of the level of public opposition to the law, thousands took to the streets of Vienna in January to protest the short-lived vaccine mandate which was introduced in February after it was signed into law by Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen.
“The government must go!” crowds chanted at one rally in the capital in what had become a routine Saturday protest.
Last month, the country also announced it would drop its mask-wearing mandate.
Austria’s vaccination rate is low, with reports indicating that around 62.4% of the population in Austria is double vaccinated.