Austria’s Nationalrat was high on polemics this Thursday. The cause of the turmoil was a draft law, since passed by its lower house, which would make vaccination against COVID-19 mandatory. The law would go into effect starting early February. Outside of Vatican City, Austria would become the second country and the first EU member country to mandate vaccination.
The bill still has to be reviewed by the Bundesrat, the Austrian parliament’s upper house which represents the federal states. It is expected to approve the law on February 3rd.
The law is to apply to all persons over the age of 18 with some exceptions: pregnant women, those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, and those who have recovered from the illness in the previous six months. Austria’s vaccination rate (currently at 71.09%) was, when the law was proposed in November, among the lowest in Western Europe, but is now higher than the EU average. Experts seek to boost that figure up to 90% by taking the path of the mandate. In doing so, they hope to avoid future lockdowns and thereby avoid further economic harm.
Nearly all members of Austria’s governing coalition (the center-right ÖVP, the Greens, the social democratic SPÖ, and the liberal NEOS) supported the motion, while the entire national-conservative FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria) stood alone in rejecting it. More than ten MPs were absent at the meeting, some due to being in quarantine, while others, such as Ewa Ernst-Dziedzic (Greens) decided not to show in protest. ÖVP MP Gudrun Kugler was criticized by FPÖ club chairman Maximilian Krauss for not appearing for the vote. At the request of the FPÖ, voting anonymously was not allowed. Every member of parliament received a voting card (to be put in a ballot box), and had their vote documented.
Subject to much controversy since made public, this new law—the brainchild of the center-right ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party) and the Greens—allows citizens’ vaccination status to be checked by police. Starting from mid-March, the government will also be able to issue fines if no proof of inoculation can be presented. Fines for infractions will range from €600 to €3600. Should citizens seek to avoid these, they have the option of receiving a vaccination within two weeks after the control.
Kicking off the debate with a scorching speech was FPÖ-leader Herbert Kickl. Denouncing the law, coming from the “worst and most cold-hearted government that Austria has ever had,” which left him feeling “horrified, stunned and shocked,” he made known that he will remain unvaccinated. Kickl voiced his worry that, with this law, Austria is on the “path to totalitarianism,” with its citizens “downgraded to the level of servants and serfs.” To be chairman of the party that “does not participate in this madness” made him proud, he said.
Club chairwoman for the Greens, Sigrid Maurer, called Kickl’s remarks “low-class” and “cynical,” and termed a high vaccination rate a precondition in order to be able to “live normally again.” That goal is unachievable without making jabs compulsory, she said, adding that it is a “very good” law.
Her fellow member of the Greens, Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein tried to counter “vaccination myths,” which he believes lie at the root of citizens’ hesitancy. “All the evidence suggests that all treatments available in Austria are safe,” he emphasized, adding that “after two years of the pandemic, it is high time to no longer rely on gut feeling….science speaks a clear language.”
ÖVP Minister of Parliament Werner Saxinger emphasized that vaccination is the only way to minimize the burden on hospitals. “Die Impfung schützt und nützt,” (Vaccination protects and benefits) he rhymed, even going as far as to direct a short verse to the FPÖ, saying “impfen statt schimpfen und verunglimpfen.” (Vaccinate instead of scolding and denigrating).
Agreeing with her colleagues, SPÖ leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner joined her ‘better safe than sorry’ argument to theirs, saying that the law also serves as a precaution against possible future variants of the virus: “As long as we do not know, it is our responsibility to play it safe,” she said. Due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, Austria is dealing with a number of cases of COVID-19 not seen since the start of the pandemic.
Chairwoman for NEOS, Beate Meinl-Reisinger, also pointed to a possible scenario of hospitals being overloaded, where treatment of diseases other than COVID-19 would become difficult. It is important “that these times are finally behind us,” she said, adding that the coalition had previously failed to provide “incentives” for citizens to get vaccinated.
“Incentives” will indeed accompany the mandate. Starting on March 15th, Austria will hold a lottery. For each jab, Austrian citizens will get one lottery ticket, meaning three tickets in total per person for those who have had a double shot and their booster. Every 10th ticket will win a €500 gift voucher, which will be valid for a variety of businesses across Austria, although making online purchases with them likely won’t be possible. “A vaccination lottery is the best possible way to set up such a system [of vaccine mandates],” Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer told a news conference.
The Federal Government also put forward additional financial incentives for municipalities who increase their vaccination rate. A municipality with 3,000 inhabitants that reaches a 80% vaccination target would receive €30,000. For 85%, €60,000 and for 90%, €120,000.
In total, the scheme would cost Austrian taxpayers €1.4 billion—€1 billion for the lottery, €400 million for the municipalities, costs that are “completely justified,” according to Nehammer.
Austria’s policy stands in marked contrast to that of other Western countries. Only a few days ago, with the Omicron wave having reached its peak there, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a lifting of almost all restrictions. Meanwhile, Spain has already begun treating COVID-19 as a common flu, which it also seeks to formalize on the EU-level. The tens of thousands of Austrians who have already frequently demonstrated against their government’s COVID-19 policies probably will not be deterred by more severe mandates. With teacher’s strikes already being announced, other sectors could very well soon follow.