Austria drops compulsory Covid vaccine mandate

Austria has suspended its controversial law requiring all adults to take a coronavirus vaccine.

Following the advice of a panel of legal and scientific experts, the government announced on Wednesday afternoon that the vaccine mandate, which came into force barely a month ago, was no longer “proportionate”.

The suspension of the law will apply for the next three months, at which point a further review will take place.

But the decision comes just as coronavirus cases are beginning to sharply rise in Austria. On Tuesday, public health authorities recorded the single highest number of new infections, 47,057, of any day in the whole pandemic.

Karoline Edtstadler, Minister for the EU and Constitution, said in Vienna that the suspension was “not the last chapter when it comes to compulsory vaccination”.

“Just as the virus is very mobile, we must be flexible and adaptable,” said Edtstadler, a member of the conservative Austrian People’s Party.

Austria became the first country in the developed world to pass legislation in January forcing its citizens to take doses of coronavirus vaccine. The proposals were made by the government in November as soaring infection rates plunged the country into the latest in a series of lockdowns.

The legislation contained a lengthy break-in period, however, and so far no action has been taken against any citizen who has refused to be jabbed.

A key change was set to occur next week when police would gain powers to start stopping and checking for vaccine status, and imposing fines on those who had not yet taken it.

More than one-in-four Austrians eligible for the vaccine has yet to take it, amid widespread skepticism in the country and resistance to the government’s plans.

The government commission charged with monitoring the vaccine mandate reported on Wednesday that while a compelling case for the mandate still existed, current epidemiological trends were insufficiently serious to outweigh ethical and legal concerns.

The authorities volte face has, meanwhile, drawn criticism from across the political spectrum.

“If we sleepwalk through the coming summer again, we will stumble haphazardly into autumn and another disaster,” said Philip Kucher, health spokesperson for the Austrian Social Democrats.

Herbert Kickl, leader of the rightwing populist Freedom Party, who has been a staunch critic of the law, attributed his party’s own campaigning as a key reason for the law’s suspension. But, he stressed, “suspended is not canceled”.

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