The Austrian government presented revised plans for its proposed COVID-19 vaccine mandate, changing the age limit to all residents 18 and over and creating a set of opportunities for the citizens to comply with a law that is to become Europe’s first.
In early December, the Austrian government produced a first draft of the law, calling for the measure to be introduced in February and foreseeing fines of up to 3,600 euros for people who flout it.
Key aspects of the plan remain in the final version, which the government aims to have parliament approve on Thursday, but officials said consultations with two opposition parties and others showed the need for significant changes to details.
“Without obligatory vaccination, we will always lag behind,” health minister Wolfgang Mueckstein said. He said the current Omicron variant will not be the last and it is still unclear how stable is the immunity gained after infection with the latest variant.
“All experts believe that we will need high overall immunity in the population next fall as well,” Mueckstein said.
“With this vaccine mandate, we will succeed in achieving these important additional percentage points in the vaccination rate.”
Chancellor Karl Nehammer said there had been concern about teenagers being punished, hence the change in the lower age limit from 14 to 18.
The bill, which is planned to become a law at the beginning of February, “is conceived in such a way that it responds to the flexibility of the virus,” Nehammer told reporters in Vienna.
In the first phase, authorities will write to every household to inform them of the new rules. Pregnant women and people who for medical reasons can't be vaccinated will be exempted; so will people who have recovered from a COVID-19 infection in the past six months.
From mid-March, police will start checking people's vaccination status during routine checks. People who cannot produce proof of vaccination will be asked in writing to do so and will be fined up to 600 euros if they do not.
If authorities judge vaccination progress still to be insufficient, they would then send reminders to people who remain unvaccinated, Nehammer said.
If that still does not work, people would be sent a vaccination appointment and fined if they do not keep it. Fines could reach 3,600 euros if people contest their punishment and full proceedings are opened, which the officials hope will not be necessary.
Karoline Edtstadler, the cabinet minister responsible for constitutional issues, said individuals could be fined a maximum of four times per year and there is no provision for them to serve jail time instead of paying up.
A commission containing at least two medical and two legal experts will report to the government and parliament every three months on vaccination progress.
Parts of the legislation could be suspended by the health minister, with approval from a parliamentary committee, if for example future variants are milder or the experts say vaccination is no longer the way forward, Edtstadler said.
The plan was drawn up at the same time as a now-lifted lockdown was imposed in November, amid concern that Austria's vaccination rate is comparatively low for Western Europe. As of Sunday, 71.6 per cent of the population of 8.9 million was considered fully vaccinated.