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Austria’s government lifts vaccination requirements

In order to get the pandemic under control, the government in Vienna decided in autumn to make vaccination compulsory. But this was a crucial test for the country. The law also failed to live up to expectations from a health policy perspective. Now it is to be abolished.

A demonstrator against compulsory vaccination in Austria’s capital Vienna.

imago

Austria is still the only European democracy in which there is a statutory obligation to vaccinate against the corona virus. On Thursday, however, Austria’s Health Minister Johannes Rauch announced that the government wanted to finally abolish the obligation to vaccinate, which is currently suspended. Parliament is due to decide on this at the beginning of July. “The waves of infection will remain, we have to live with them,” said Rauch.

Mandatory vaccination has poisoned the political climate

The vaccination requirement had led to heated discussions and protests from various camps at the beginning of the year. The debate affected the then Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein so much that he resigned in March. Vaccination opponents had issued threats against him and his family.

Rauch, Mückstein’s successor from the Green Party, hopes that the abolition of compulsory vaccination will help to fill in the rifts in Austria again. “The debate has poisoned the climate in Austria,” said the minister. He appealed to the reason and solidarity of the residents. This is necessary in order to cope with the current crises, inflation and the consequences of the Ukraine war.

From his point of view, there is no reason to stick to the corresponding law from a health policy point of view. The obligation to vaccinate has not led to more people in Austria being vaccinated against the corona virus. Worse still, Rauch believes the law had the opposite effect – many people refused the vaccine out of spite. “The vaccination law has led to more resistance,” said August Wöginger, the parliamentary group leader of the ruling party ÖVP.

Austria's Health Minister Johannes Rauch wants to fill in the trenches again in Austria.

Austria’s Health Minister Johannes Rauch wants to fill in the trenches again in Austria.

Imago / Martin Juen

However, he denied that the abolition was also based on partisan political considerations. In early autumn there will be state elections in Tyrol, which the ÖVP is looking forward to with unease. There are currently open questions about the financing of the party. The ÖVP does not need a controversial vaccination discussion at the moment.

In addition, there had always been legal concerns about the law. Constitutional lawyers said, for example, that compulsory vaccination would be too severe an encroachment on fundamental rights as long as the healthcare system was functioning despite the pandemic.

Too many lockdowns in Austria

The now planned abolition was preceded by a long back and forth. The obligation to vaccinate was decided in November 2021 under Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg. It represented an act of desperation. At the time, the number of reported Covid-19 infections had skyrocketed and intensive care units were overloaded in some regions.

The government therefore decided to subject the country to the fourth lockdown of the pandemic. In order to make this measure a little more bearable for those who have already been vaccinated, the government announced compulsory vaccination.

The law then came into effect at the beginning of February. However, it quickly became clear that it was too much of an ordeal for Austria. In March, the government therefore decided to temporarily suspend the obligation. However, it should be activated again in late summer, depending on the situation.

Health Minister Rauch hopes that more people will now have a vaccine administered again. The government recommends a booster vaccination for people over the age of 80. It is also being considered whether this advice should be extended to include the over 65s.

The number of new infections in Austria has recently risen sharply again. On Wednesday it was over 10,000. That was not the peak, said Rauch. “How far it goes up is open.” The complexity researcher Peter Klimek from the University of Vienna assumes that the threshold of 30,000 reported new infections will be exceeded in the summer.

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