Austria’s upper house backs COVID vaccine mandate
VIENNA (Reuters) -Austria’s upper house of parliament on Thursday passed a bill to make coronavirus vaccines compulsory for adults, bringing the European Union’s first such sweeping vaccine mandate a step closer.
Roughly 69% of Austria’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in western Europe. The new government has stuck to the planned mandate since it was announced by a previous chancellor in November, even as doubts have grown that it will be fully implemented.
The mandate, which is expected to be carried out in phases, is likely to come into force within days but there will be no checks until March 15, when police will start verifying the vaccination status of people they stop in their regular patrols. More thorough checks will begin at a later, unspecified date in a third phase once a vaccination register is up and running.
“I hope that we will not need Phase 3 at all. If (health) experts say that in their assessment it is not necessary, if constitutional lawyers say it is not proportionate, Phase 3 will not happen,” Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein told ORF radio hours before the upper house passed the bill by 47 votes to 12.
He was asked whether that phase would still be necessary given the current record number of infections caused by the highly contagious Omicron variant, which means immunity among the population is also growing.
Adding to confusion about the mandate, the government is easing restrictions on the unvaccinated, who will soon no longer be barred from restaurants and non-essential shops because intensive-care bed occupancy is at “a good level”.
Having cleared the upper house, the bill must go through the formality of being signed by President Alexander Van der Bellen and Chancellor Karl Nehammer, after which it will come into force. That process usually takes a matter of days. The government has long said the mandate will begin at the start of February.
(Reporting by Francois MurphyEditing by Gareth Jones and Grant McCool)