Saturday , August 13 2022

Austria Abandons Sweeping Vaccine Mandate, Citing Milder Omicron Cases

BERLIN — Four months ago, Austria made headlines when it announced plans to become the first Western democracy to impose a general vaccine mandate to fight the coronavirus, a measure that would have hit adults who refused to be inoculated with fines of up to 3,600 euros (about $4,000).

That was a different time, one before the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus became seemingly omnipresent.

Calling the law “not proportionate” given the relatively mild symptoms experienced by most people with the variant, Karoline Edtstadler, the minister responsible for Austria’s constitutional affairs, said the country was doing a U-turn on its policy.

The mandate for Austria, where about 74 percent of the population has received at least two doses, officially took effect early last month, but enforcement was not scheduled to begin until next Tuesday.

Now it will be temporarily suspended, Ms. Edtstadler said, although the legal framework will be kept in place in case another, more dangerous variant became dominant in the future.

“Just as the virus is very agile, we need to be flexible and adaptable,” she told reporters at a news conference in Vienna.

The turnaround speaks to how the pathology of the Omicron variant has influenced the way in which Austria and a number of other European countries are adjusting their virus strategies. It also comes as public attention is focused on other crises, most notably a war to the east and the surging energy prices it has already generated.

While the country has been reporting some of its highest case numbers of the pandemic, Austria recently dropped most of its social distancing rules in a move that echoed others that were considering trying to “live with the virus.” Germany and France are also scheduled to drop a majority of their restrictions by the end of the month, despite substantial caseloads.

The difference between November, when the mandate was first announced — and when the authorities virtually locked down the country for 20 days — and now is that only about 200 patients are in I.C.U.s with Covid-19. That is in contrast to more than 2,500, as was the case when the Delta variant was dominant in the country, according to government data.

Austria had been the only European country with a general vaccine mandate that extended to all adults. In Italy, vaccinations are required for workers who are at least 50, and Greece requires Covid vaccines for people who are 60 or over.

“It’s a topic that has really moved into the background,” Laurenz Ennser-Jedenastik, a political scientist at the University of Vienna, said about the coronavirus.

The reversal was unsurprising to those watching politicians, including the Austrian chancellor, Karl Nehammer, repeatedly signal that the law was on fragile ground. Just weeks after Parliament passed the law in late January with a significant majority, Mr. Nehammer said it was not “set in stone.”

In late November, shortly after a lockdown and the mandate were announced, 40,000 people took to the streets of Vienna to demonstrate against both measures. Although the large protest movement quieted over time, a smaller, more extreme protest culture emerged. Wolfgang Mückstein, the health minister who had helped shape the vaccine mandate, resigned last week citing threats to his personal safety.

One of the official reasons the mandate was undone was because the expert advisory board to the Austrian government worried that forcing people to get vaccinated now might not be helpful if and when a new wave, driven by some unknown variant, emerged later.

The commission plans to meet again in three months to make an updated recommendation about vaccine mandates.

“In light of new scientific findings,” the advisers wrote in a 25-page report released on Wednesday, “that implementation of mandatory vaccination will no longer be necessary at all, or even better vaccines will be available.”

The announcement came less than a week before the mandate, which was being carried out in phases, would have been enforced.

The first phase consisted of the government sending letters reminding unvaccinated Austrians that they were in violation of the law if they did not get vaccinated. The second was to begin on Tuesday, when the police were scheduled to start conducting random checks and issuing fines that could have reached nearly $4,000 to those who declined to be vaccinated even after being caught.

A third phase would have been the systematic search through vaccine databases to find those who did not comply. A date for the third phase was never set, and officials said that the phase might not be necessary if the pandemic abated.

The country did experience an increase in first-time vaccinations in November, when the government effectively shut out the unvaccinated from most parts of public life in conjunction with the announcement of its plans for a mandate, but recently, the number of daily vaccinations has actually decreased, according to government data.

“We are seeing a kind of political fatigue that’s affecting these decisions,” Prof. Ennser-Jedenastik said. Even though the decision had a strong majority when it was passed, with Parliament approving it 137 to 33, state governors, who play key roles in the governing conservative Austrian People’s Party, had started criticizing the law soon after.

There were other, more practical, considerations. “It would have been an enormous bureaucratic effort for everyone from local health authorities to the courts,” Prof. Ennser-Jedenastik said.

Austria’s announcement came a week before German lawmakers are set to discuss a proposal to impose a vaccine mandate of their own. The German mandate, which appeared to be inevitable when it was first announced late last year and was publicly supported by the parties in the governing coalition, also appears to be faltering. Lawmakers who would be needed for its passage in Parliament have recently expressed doubts about its necessity now.

After reaching a peak in cases in early February, reported infections in Austria have plateaued. The authorities reported about 47,000 new cases on Tuesday, but the number of patients in intensive-care-unit beds has remained steady since a wave driven by the Delta variant subsided in December.


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