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Covid vaccination compulsory in Austria, in EU first

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Employees examine the coronavirus PCR gargle tests on February 1. The laboratory is the backbone of Austria’s gargle system aimed at making it easy for those in Vienna to test for the virus. AFP

Covid vaccination compulsory in Austria, in EU first

It’s official: Austrians over the age of 18 must be vaccinated against Covid-19 from February 5 or face the possibility of a heavy fine, an unprecedented measure in the EU.

The new measure, adopted on January 20 by Parliament, came into force on February 5, the culmination of a process that began in November in the face of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

The government decided to pursue its new, tougher approach despite criticism within the country.

“No other country in Europe is following us on compulsory vaccines,” said Manuel Krautgartner, who has campaigned against the new approach.

In neighbouring Germany, a similar proposal championed by the new Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz was debated last month in the lower house of parliament but many lawmakters still oppose the idea.

Despite the threat of such a drastic measure, the vaccination rate in Austria has still failed to take off, languishing below the levels seen in France or Spain.

The humanitarian association Arbeiter Samariter Bund, which oversees some vaccination sites in the capital Vienna, said there had been an uptick in turnout last week.

“We recorded a small increase of around nine per cent compared to [the previous] week,” the organisation’s manager, Michael Hausmann, said.

From the average of around 7,000 injections administered every day in the capital, only 10 per cent are a first dose, he said.

Erika Viskancove, a 33-year-old accountant, said she came to a vaccination centre situated next to an Art Deco swimming pool to receive her third booster dose.

“I sincerely believe that the law is the best way” to defeat the pandemic, she said, calling on other countries to follow Austria’s lead.

Melanie, a 23-year-old waitress who preferred not to give her second name, said she was mainly there to avoid ending up “locked up at home”.

Non-vaccinated people are currently excluded from restaurants, sports and cultural venues.

But from now on they will also be subject to fines, which Melanie said was “unhealthy”.

The law applies to all adult residents with the exception of pregnant women, those who have contracted the virus within the past 180 days and those with medical exemptions.

Checks will begin from mid-March, with fines ranging from €600 to €3,600 ($690-$4,100).

They will, however, be lifted if the person fined gets vaccinated within two weeks.

More than 60 per cent of Austrians support the measure, according to a recent survey, but large swathes of the population remain strongly opposed.

For several weeks after the announcement of the new law, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against what they regard as a draconian policy.

Critics have also questioned the need for compulsion given the milder nature of the Omicron variant.

Conservative Chancellor Karl Nehammer, who leads the Alpine country with the environmentalist Greens, also announced at the same time a relaxation of earlier Covid-19 restrictions.

But for Minister of Health Wolfgang Mueckstein, compulsory vaccination is aimed at both protecting the country against new waves and fighting new variants.

Vaccination passes are now a reality in an increasing number of countries for certain professions or activities.

In Ecuador, it is compulsory, including for children over the age of five, a world first.

Before that, two authoritarian states in Central Asia – Tajikistan and Turkmenistan – mandated vaccination, as did Indonesia, even if less than half its population is actually vaccinated.

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