Friday, May 27

Austrian government introduces compulsory vaccination law next month

The Austrian government has unveiled revised plans for its proposed COVID-19 vaccine mandate, changing the age limit to all residents over the age of 18 and creating a set of opportunities for citizens to comply with a law that will become the first in Europe.

In early December, the Austrian government produced a first draft of the law, which called for the measure to be introduced in February and provided for fines of up to €3,600 for people who break it.

Key aspects of the plan remain in the final version, which the government intends parliament to approve on Thursday, but officials said consultations with two opposition parties and others showed the need for significant changes to the details.

“Without compulsory vaccination, we will always be left behind,” said Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein. He said the current Omicron variant will not be the last and it is not yet clear how stable the immunity gained after infection with the latest variant is.

“All experts believe that we will also need high general immunity in the population next fall,” Mueckstein said.

“With this vaccination mandate, we will be able to achieve these significant additional percentage points in the vaccination rate.”

Chancellor Karl Nehammer said there was concern about the punishment of teenagers, hence the change in the lower age limit from 14 to 18.

The bill, which is due to become law in early February, “is conceived in such a way that it responds to the flexibility of the virus,” Nehammer told reporters in Vienna.

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In the first phase, the authorities will write to each household to inform them of the new rules. Pregnant women and people who for medical reasons cannot be vaccinated are excepted; so will people who have recovered from a COVID-19 infection in the last six months.

Starting in mid-March, the police will start checking people’s vaccination status during routine checks. People who cannot present proof of vaccination will be asked in writing to do so and will be fined up to €600 if they do not.

If the authorities consider that the vaccination progress is still insufficient, they will send reminders to people who are not yet vaccinated, Nehammer said.

If that still doesn’t work, people will be sent a vaccination appointment and fined if they don’t show up. The fines could reach 3,600 euros if people challenge their sanction and a full process is opened, which officials hope will not be necessary.

Karoline Edtstadler, the cabinet minister responsible for constitutional affairs, said people could be fined a maximum of four times a year and there is no provision for them to serve jail time instead of paying.

A commission made up of at least two doctors and two legal experts will report to the government and parliament every three months on the progress of the vaccination.

The health minister could suspend parts of the legislation, with the approval of a parliamentary committee, if, for example, future variants are milder or experts say vaccination is no longer the way forward, Edtstadler said.

The plan was drawn up at the same time a now-lifted lockdown was imposed in November, amid concerns that Austria’s vaccination rate is comparatively low for Western Europe. As of Sunday, 71.6 percent of the population of 8.9 million considered themselves fully vaccinated.

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