Source: The Guardian
Austria has become the first country in the EU to make vaccinations against Covid-19 mandatory for all adults, but questions remain over whether it can sway those skeptical of taking the jab and how much the Alpine state’s government is willing to press those who won’t comply.
Every household is to be informed of the new law via post by 15 March...police will start monitoring people’s immunization status via spot checks and issuing fines of 600 euros, rising to up to 3,600
The upper house of the Austrian parliament, the Bundesrat, on Thursday evening voted 47-12 in favor of a general vaccination mandate, formally approving a law that will see those over the age of 18 who decline to take a jab face penalties of up to 3,600 euros unless they are pregnant or severely ill.
The legislation, which was signed by Austria’s President Alexander Van der Bellen on Friday and will come into effect over the coming days, has been followed with great interest across Europe, where other nations have considered taking a similar step.
Already approved by the lower house of Austria’s parliament with a clear majority last month, Austria’s vaccine mandate is due to come into effect in three stages.
Every household is to be informed of the new law via post by 15 March, after which police will start monitoring people’s immunization status via spot checks and issuing fines of 600 euros, rising to up to 3,600 euros in case of non-compliance.
In the third phase, those who cannot show proof of vaccination by a certain deadline are to 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 has inched closer to a decision on mandatory vaccinations, the conservative-Greens coalition government of chancellor Karl Nehammer has simultaneously loosened 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 haven’t got a jab, as long as they can show a recent negative test result.
Political developments around the mandate have been followed closely in Germany, where government calls for a similar law have become more cautious in recent weeks.
“Since the government announced the compulsory measure in mid-January, it has done everything to undermine, soften and make its own project redundant,” wrote Munich-based German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung in a comment piece. “The message is clear: we didn’t really mean it.”
Gerald Loacker, a health spokesperson for the liberal NEOS opposition party, said waning political enthusiasm for mandatory vaccinations was impossible to ignore.
“What we are dealing with here is a vaccine mandate that comes into effect just as the government is making it possible for those who aren’t vaccinated to enter a bar with a subsidized free test result and raise a glass to their resistance,” Loacker told the Guardian.
“That’s not a coherent policy, and people in Austria are taking note of that.”
Karl Stöger, a professor of constitutional law at Vienna University, said that seeming incoherence was partly a deliberate choice. “The vaccination mandate has legal teeth, but it is also a law that is very aware of the limits of what a state can force people to do,” he said.
Stöger, who has advised the government in its handling of the pandemic, said it was possible that Austria’s constitutional court could still stymie the vaccine mandate, especially if an “endemic” situation of the virus with low hospitalization rates no longer makes vaccinations appear vital.
Like many other European countries, Austria is experiencing record rates of Covid-19 infections, but the number of patients in intensive care beds with the virus is declining.
With 68.8 % of its population having received at least two shots of a vaccine, however, the government argues that only mandatory vaccinations will bring immunization rates to a sufficiently high level to weather another wave of the virus later this year.
Last December’s emphatic endorsement of the vaccine mandate idea on behalf of the government, then still fronted by interim chancellor Alexander Schallenberg, has also made it politically difficult for the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) to change its mind without losing face.
“There’s a sense the whole of Europe is watching us: a government U-turn at this stage would amount to a huge loss of face,” said Clemens Schuhmann, a journalist for Oberösterreichische Nachrichten newspaper.
Yet enforcing the mandate could come with the risk of further stoking divisions in a society already polarised over the course of the pandemic.
Upper Austria, the northern state that Schuhmann reports on, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, with fewer than 60% of residents fully vaccinated in some municipalities bordering on southern Germany.
“Those who will get vaccinated because of the mandate are the ones who can’t afford to pay the fines”, he said. “The risk is that others will get further radicalized and rather go to prison than take the jab.”