Austria will impose criminal fines of up to €3,600 on anyone over the age of 14 who refuses to be vaccinated, the government said on Thursday, under plans to make injections against coronavirus compulsory from February onwards.
The move comes amid a shift across much of Europe towards increasingly harsh measures to crack down on vaccine hesitancy, as Covid cases surge and the emergence of the Omicron variant threatens to derail recovery plans.
In a press conference at the federal chancellery, health minister Wolfgang Mückstein and constitution minister Karoline Edtstadler unveiled the first concrete details of the proposed vaccine law, announced three weeks ago.
“I know that some are uncertain and angry,” said Edtstadler, describing the law as “the last resort.” But, she said, “in order to be able to live in freedom again, there is no other way but with this vaccine. There is a common enemy, and that is the virus.”
The law would apply to all Austrians over 14, with exemptions for pregnant women and those with legitimate medical grounds, attested to by a doctor or qualified health professional.
Three mandatory doses of the vaccine will be administered with quarterly deadlines while a central government register will be created to monitor compliance.
Mückstein said he had long been opposed to compulsory vaccinations, but that recent events had changed his mind. “We have learned in the pandemic that we shouldn’t rule anything out and we shouldn’t promise anything,” he told reporters.
The proposals have triggered a fierce political backlash in Austria, a country already in the throes of a tumultuous political crisis, with tens of thousands turning out on the streets of cities across the country in protest over recent weekends.
The vaccination mandate is supported by Austria’s four largest parties, including the Social Democrats and liberal Neos, meaning it is almost certain to easily pass into law over the coming weeks.
In parliament, only the far right Freedom party has stood against the proposals, and has ramped up its rhetoric against the government — a coalition of the moderate conservative People’s party and the Greens. The vaccine mandate was tantamount to “fascism”, the party’s leader, Herbert Kickl, has said, calling for “all forms of resistance” to be made against it.
Polling has indicated that many moderate Austrians share his unease over the use of criminal law to compel people to get jabbed — if not his choice of language.
A new political party, MFG — People Freedom Rights — won more than 6 per cent of votes in an important regional election in Upper Austria in September on a platform of opposition to vaccine mandates and vaccine passports.
About 1.4m people in Austria — one in six adults — have yet to receive even a first dose of the vaccine. As such, the country’s vaccination rate remains one of the lowest in western Europe. The country has consequently suffered from a surge in cases of coronavirus this autumn that has outstripped the severity — by case numbers — of any previous wave of the pandemic. Hospitalisations and deaths are still well below their previous peak, however, which opponents of the vaccine law say shows it is not needed.