While the U.S. continues to bicker over the limited extent to which the government can compel covid-19 vaccinations, Austria has gone ahead and pushed through its own sweeping vaccine mandate. The new legislation, signed into law this week, officially takes Austria the first European country to require vaccines for the majority of adults, CNN notes.
Starting in mid-March, Austrian police will reportedly conduct routine checks to verify people’s vaccination status. Those who refuse to get vaccinated could reportedly face fines of 600 euros, ($687) or up to 3,600 euros ($,4,124) issued as many as four times per year for those who continue to oppose the requirement. The mandate, which takes effect on Saturday, February 5, applies to adults over the age of 18 and will last until January 31, 2024. The upper house of the Austrian parliament overwhelmingly voted in favor of the mandate by a margin of 47-12.
The requirements won’t apply to everyone though. Pregnant people, for example, won’t be required to take shots; neither will those who have health issues preventing them from getting vaccinated. Notably, the requirement also won’t apply to people who have recently contracted the virus.
In a statement viewed by the Associated Press, the country’s top health minister said he was confident the vaccine requirement would play an important role in bolstering protections against future waves, but admitted it will likely do little to address the current omicron wave drifting through Europe.
“The vaccine mandate won’t immediately help us break the omicron wave, but that wasn’t the goal of this law,” Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein. “The vaccine mandate should help protect us from the next waves, and above all from the next variants.”
Health officials are betting the requirement will boost the country’s roughly 72% full vaccination rate. Though Austria isn’t the most vaccinated European country (that title goes to Portugal), its rate is above the EU’s average according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s Coivd-19 vaccine tracker.
However, while the mandate empowers officials to fine unvaccinated Austrians, it still remains unclear just how much the government is willing to enforce the new measures. Mueckstein, the Health Minister, for example, has yet to provide a concrete date for when potential fines would be issued, The Guardian notes.
“The vaccination mandate has legal teeth, but it is also a law that is very aware of the limits of what a state can force people to do,” Vienna University Constitutional Law professor Karl Stöger told The Guardian.
While Austra represents the first European country to pass legislation mandating vaccines for most of its adult population, others like Italy and Greece have issued mandates requiring vaccines for people above the ages of 50 and 60. Germany meanwhile, which is reportedly considering implementing its own mandate, has recently faced mass protests from groups opposed to the requirement.