On Thursday, February 3rd, the Bundesrat, Austria’s upper house of parliament, signed off on the proposed mandatory COVID vaccination law. Already in January, the law—originally initiated by short-term Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg in November of last year—had been approved by a majority in Austria’s parliament.
The new law makes vaccination against COVID mandatory for all citizens above the age of 18. By March 15th, all households will be informed about the new law by mail. From that time on, police will be spot checking the immunization status of citizens and issuing fines ranging from €600 to €3600 for non-compliance. In a proposed ‘third phase’ of enforcement of the law, all citizens unable to show proof of their vaccination status until a certain deadline will automatically be fined. It remains unclear, however, if and when this ‘third phase’ would be enforced.
While the political signal is clear, there are many unanswered questions with regards to the practical implementation of the law. Not only is it unclear how the government intends to enforce the law, but the digital system for tracking exemptions (ELGA), isn’t ready yet and probably won’t be until April. Since written exemptions for medical reasons by a doctor won’t be valid until included in the ELGA system, citizens with valid exemptions won’t be able to show proof of their exemption status, thus further delaying the introduction of fines until the system is in place.
This follows in the footsteps of a chaotic campaign to incentivize vaccinations with a ‘vaccination lottery,’ which the government intended to be organized by state TV Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF), the Austrian broadcasting corporation. After ORF pulled out, the original lottery granting €500 to every 10th person has now been changed to a €150 bonus for all fully vaccinated citizens, which amounts to the primary vaccination plus a booster.
The introduction of mandatory vaccination comes at a time where many other European countries have opted to relax their COVID restrictions, if not drop them altogether. Even the German government, where in November Chancellor Scholz had proposed mandatory vaccinations starting from March, has not made any significant steps towards implementing such a law, mostly due to parliamentary and public resistance.
Austria’s new law also appears contradictory to the other COVID regulations in the country, as the government lifted its ‘lockdown for the unvaccinated’ just a few days prior to the new law, thus allowing unvaccinated citizens to participate in public life again, albeit with a negative test result. Gerald Loacker, a health spokesperson for the Neue Österreich und Liberales Forum (NEOS) opposition party, considers this a contradictory signal to the public: “What we are dealing with here is a vaccine mandate that comes into effect just as the government is making it possible for those who aren’t vaccinated to enter a bar with a subsidised free test result and raise a glass to their resistance.”
Waning political support of and public resistance to the mandatory vaccination law isn’t, however, the only problem looming over the government’s head. On the 26th of January a letter from the constitutional court was received by the ministry of health and quickly went viral, in which the judges formulated a series of questions regarding the adequacy of the COVID restrictions, specifically: the lockdown, the exclusion of unvaccinated people from large parts of public life (so-called ‘2G’ rule), the efficacy of mask mandates, and necessity for mandatory vaccination. The court gave the ministry time, until February 18th, to answer these questions. Given the fact that over the past weeks several courts in Germany had declared 2G-restrictions unlawful (allowing entry to certain areas of public life only for the cured and vaccinated), this inquiry by the constitutional court could have a significant impact on the future of not only COVID restrictions in Austria, but also the implementation of the vaccine mandate.
Karl Stöger, a professor of constitutional law at Vienna University and advisor to the government in the handling of the pandemic, already hinted at the possibility that the constitutional court’s inquiry could stymie the vaccine mandate, especially if an “endemic” situation of the virus, with low hospitalisation rates, no longer makes vaccinations appear vital. This echoes similar sentiments expressed in the Austrian press, where Clemens Schuhmann of the Oberösterreichische Nachrichten hinted already at the idea that the government might just be looking for an exit strategy: “There’s a sense the whole of Europe is watching us: a government U-turn at this stage would amount to a huge loss of face.”
At a rate of 75.8% fully vaccinated citizens, Austria ranks close in vaccination rates to countries like Italy and France. Hospitalization rates have not spiked with the new Omicron variant, and epidemiologists such as Martin Sprenger have expressed doubt that mandatory vaccinations can curb the pandemic.