Compulsory vaccination rules come into force in Austria

It's official: From Saturday, Austrians over the age of 18 must be vaccinated against Covid-19 or face the possibility of a heavy fine, an unprecedented measure in the European Union.

A patient receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech (Comirnaty) Covid-19 vaccine.
A patient receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech (Comirnaty) Covid-19 vaccine. Austria's parliament approved in a vote on January 20th, 2022 the introduction of mandatory Covid-19 vaccination, becoming the first European country to do so. (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD / AFP)

The new measure, adopted on January 20th by Parliament, was signed into law by President Alexander Van der Bellen on Friday, the culmination of a process that began in November in the face of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

The government decided to pursue its new tougher approach despite criticism within the country.

“No other country in Europe is following us on compulsory vaccines,” said Manuel Krautgartner, who has campaigned against the new approach.

In neighbouring Germany, a similar law championed by the new Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz was debated last month in the Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, but has not made progress yet due to divisions within the political class.

Checks from mid-March
Despite the threat of such a drastic measure, the vaccination rate in Austria has still failed to take off, languishing below the levels seen in France or Spain.

The humanitarian association Arbeiter Samariter Bund, which oversees some vaccination sites in the capital Vienna, said there had an uptick in turnout this week.

“We recorded a small increase of around nine percent compared to last week,” the organisation’s manager, Michael Hausmann, told AFP.

From the average of around 7,000 injections administered every day in the capital, only 10 percent are a first dose, he said.

Erika Viskancove, a 33-year-old accountant, said she came to a vaccination centre situated next to an Art Deco swimming pool to receive her third booster dose.

“I sincerely believe that the law is the best way” to defeat the pandemic, she said, calling on other countries to follow Austria’s lead.

Melanie, a 23-year-old waitress who preferred not to give her second name, said she was mainly there to avoid ending up “locked up at home”.

Non-vaccinated people are currently excluded from restaurants, sports and cultural venues.

But from now on they will also be subject to fines, which Melanie said was “unhealthy”.

The law applies to all adult residents with the exception of pregnant women, those who have contracted the virus within the past 180 days and those with medical exemptions.

Checks will begin from mid-March, with sanctions ranging from 600 to 3,600 euros ($690-$4,100).

They will, however, be lifted if the person fined gets vaccinated within two weeks.

Protect against new variants 
Waiting in the queue, others say they are in favour of vaccination for all.

“We would have finished a long time ago (with the pandemic) if everyone had been vaccinated”, said legal worker, Angelika Altmann.

More than 60 percent of Austrians support the measure, according to a recent survey, but large swathes of the population remain strongly opposed.

For several weeks after the announcement of the new law, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against what they regard as a radical and draconian policy.

Critics have also questioned the need for compulsion given the far milder nature of the Omicron variant.

Conservative Chancellor Karl Nehammer, who leads the Alpine country with the environmentalist Greens, also announced at the same time a relaxation of earlier Covid-19 restrictions.

But for Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein, compulsory vaccination is aimed at both protecting the country against new waves and fighting new variants.

Vaccination passes are now a reality in an increasing number of countries for certain professions or activities.

In Ecuador, it is compulsory, including for children over the age of five, a world first.

Before that, two authoritarian states in Central Asia — Tajikistan and Turkmenistan — mandated vaccination, as did Indonesia, even if less than half the population is actually vaccinated.


Member comments

  1. It is sad that Austria goes the exact opposite way to many other countries by fining perfectly healthy human beings who do not want to take a vaccine that has been on the market just under 2 years. Hopefully their people wake up and realize that this is not necessary and even at the very least psychologically harmful.

    1. Totally agree. It’s a slippery slope for those who don’t learn from history gladly embrace. I guess 80 years after the fascism of NAZI Germany is long enough to repeat without much opposition.

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EXPLAINED: Why has Zelensky’s speech to the Austrian parliament caused so much controversy?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will make a video appearance in the Austrian parliament on Thursday - but his presence has already sparked criticism and protests. Why?

EXPLAINED: Why has Zelensky's speech to the Austrian parliament caused so much controversy?

Ukrainian president Zelensky will speak in the Austrian parliament on Thursday via video link, a virtual appearance planned for a year ago but failed to happen due to strong opposition in Austria.

The criticism comes mainly from the far-right party FPÖ, which sees an invitation to Zelensky as an “attack on Austrian neutrality”, according to party leader Herbert Kickl, who called for a “liberal protest” against the appearance on Thursday.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why isn’t Austria in NATO?

Kickl said the virtual speech was “another disruptive fire against our everlasting neutrality”. In a press release, he added: “Even though we condemn the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine: Austria is constitutionally a neutral state, perpetual neutrality is a cornerstone of our self-image, and the speech of a representative of a belligerent party in the heart of our democracy is an absolute taboo”.

The far-right leader said Austria’s perpetual neutrality was a “unique domestic and foreign policy success story”.

“We Freedom Party members are the only ones who vehemently defend this guarantor of Austria’s peace and security in the interests of our own people, while the masses of ÖVP, Greens, SPÖ and NEOS, which have merged into a single party, are more or less openly putting our perpetual neutrality under constant fire.”

READ ALSO: Four ways Austria has changed after one year of war in Ukraine

Kickl’s statements align with the party’s strategy of setting it aside from other political institutions in Austria. In several topics, far-right leaders have tried to position themselves as the “only ones” to “vehemently guarantee” something – be it Austria’s neutrality or its borders.

They’ve also gained popularity by calling for protests, particularly against the Covid-19 measures such as lockdowns and a vaccine mandate in Austria. Now, Kickl said he would call a “Freedom Party protest” against the speech. However, he didn’t specify the form that such a protest would take.

Austria neutrality

Austria’s decades-old (and constitutionally enshrined) neutrality was tested as Russia invaded its neighbour. Many were left wondering: what does it mean, really, to be neutral? And should Austria continue to be a neutral country?

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The history behind Austria’s neutrality

On several occasions, chancellor Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) has said that Austria’s neutrality is not up for debate. The country finally seems to have reached a new type of neutrality: a military, albeit not a “political” one. Austria has decided to support Ukraine in words and by sending supplies – no arms or tanks, but health assistance.

However, the country’s neutrality and ties to Russia – both economic and political – have put it in the spotlight for international criticism since the Ukraine war.

The Russian war has forced Austrian politicians to come to terms with the country’s long history of close ties with corrupt Russian politics and oligarchs. Austrian chancellor Karl Nehammer was also one of the few western political leaders to meet with Putin after the invasion – and his trip to Moscow was heavily criticised.

READ ALSO: UPDATE: Why is support for Austria’s far-right FPÖ rising?

The neutral country has also had to deal with other awkward moments. Most recently, it allowed sanctioned Russian delegates to come to Vienna for an OSCE meeting. Austria claimed that it couldn’t forbid members from coming to the meeting and acted according to the organisation’s rules headquartered in the capital. Still, the arrival of the Russian delegates led to protests and the Ukrainian representatives boycotting the event.