Austria to Mandate COVID-19 Vaccination

Life for the unvaccinated in many European countries is becoming more difficult as infections surge. Austria will take the ultimate step in February and require residents to become inoculated unless medically exempt. A lockdown begins Monday.

November 22, 2021, 5:00 AM PST

By Irvin Dawid

Mass Vaccination

Ringo Chiu / Shutterstock

The coronavirus is once again surging in Europe, comprising 8 of the top 10 countries and territories with the highest case incidence in The New York Times global tracker on Nov. 20.

Austria, with 65% of its population fully vaccinated, is #5, averaging 152 daily cases per 100,000, an increase of 89% over the last two weeks. By comparison, daily case incidence in the U.S., with 59% of the population fully vaccinated, is 28 per 100k, up 29%. Michigan, with 54% of its population fully vaccinated, has the highest rate: 88 per 100k, up 78%. [Related postPandemic Geography: What's Going on in Michigan? April 4, 2021]

"The surge [in Austria], health authorities say, is being driven by stubborn resistance to getting vaccinated in deep pockets of the population, cold weather driving people indoors and loosened restrictions, rather than new variants," write Jason Horowitz, Rome bureau chief for The New York Times and Berlin-based correspondent, Melissa Eddy, on Nov. 19. The result has been to "strain the country’s health system, which has reached its limit."

“For a long time — maybe too long — I and others assumed that it must be possible to convince people in Austria to voluntarily get vaccinated,” Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg of Austria said on Friday. “We therefore have reached a very difficult decision to introduce a national vaccine mandate.”

The notion of requiring vaccination in adults against Covid was a line that Europe had seemed unwilling to cross, however, with leaders often contrasting their respect for civil liberties with authoritarian-styled countries.

Unlike President Biden's proposed vaccine mandate

Chancellor Schallenberg will not follow President Biden's vaccination strategy of using executive orders and federal rules, the most controversial mandate having been stayed by a federal appeals court on Nov 6. Rather, Schallenberg will pursue the legislative route through the Austrian Parliament.

The health ministry said that Friday’s announcement was only the first step in drawing up a law that would establish the mandate, a process that would involve civil society and a careful review. Details about how the law would be carried out and enforced would not be available until the process had been completed, it said.

The health minister said the government felt confident a law could be drawn up within the bounds of the Constitution, citing a previous national mandate for smallpox that was passed in 1948.

Some of those details were reported by Philip Oltermann, the Guardian's Berlin bureau chief, on Nov. 19.

The government said it was preparing the legal groundwork for a general vaccine mandate to come into effect from 1 February, with exemptions for those unable to receive a jab on medical grounds.

The age from which people will be required to be vaccinated has not yet been determined, the government said.

Those refusing to be vaccinated are likely to face administrative fines, which can be converted into a prison sentence if the fine cannot be recovered.

France led the way

"We must move towards the vaccination of all French people because it is the only way to return to normal life," said President Emmanuel Macron of France on July 12. [Related post: "Mandating and Verifying Vaccinations," July 19]. "Vaccination will thus be made compulsory for nursing and non-nursing staff in hospitals, clinics, retirement homes..."

Like Schallenberger, Macron went through the Parliament rather than executive order as President Biden announced on Sept. 9.

Coronavirus restrictions: vaccine verification and two types of lockdowns

"Over the past two weeks, the conservative green coalition government has tried to prevent a collapse of the health system by making it mandatory for citizens to show proof of vaccination or recovery at restaurants and bars, and then announcing a “lockdown for the unvaccinated,” adds Oltermann.

Lockdown for all on Monday

"Austria’s chancellor said that the lockdown, one of the first since the spring, will be evaluated after 10 days and will not extend beyond Dec. 13, to ensure that people would be able to celebrate Christmas and that stores would not lose out on holiday sales," add Horowitz and Eddy of the Times.

“No one wants a lockdown, it is a crude instrument,” said Austria’s Green health minister, Wolfgang Mückstein, on Friday, reported  Oltermann. “But it is the most effective instrument that we have available”.

Final words go to Chancellor Schallenberg, who took aim at the Freedom Party that has organized demonstrations against the restrictions and upcoming mandate.

“We have too many political forces in this country who vehemently and massively fight against this,” he said. “This is irresponsible. It is an attack on our health system. Goaded by these anti-vaxxers and from fake news, too many people among us have not been vaccinated. The consequence is overfilled intensive care stations and enormous human suffering. No one can want that.”

"We don't want a fifth wave. We don't want a sixth and seventh wave. We don't want to have this discussion next summer," Schallenberg said.

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