BERLIN — Austria, the only Western country to have introduced a general mandate for coronavirus vaccinations, is phasing out the policy months after it decided to delay its introduction, the country’s health minister said Thursday.
The government will remove the law from its books in the coming weeks, ending a mandate that led to protests and was suspended in mid-March, just before enforcement was due to begin.
Health Minister Johannes Rauch said the mandate did not lead to more vaccinations, but “increased divisions among the population”.
“I am convinced that this will not help us achieve the goal of motivating as many people as possible to get boosters in the fall,” he said. “If anything, it will do the opposite.”
Austria’s vaccination rates lag behind much of the rest of Western Europe, and mandated plans were announced in November as a massive wave of Delta variant infections threatened to overwhelm its healthcare system. But not everyone liked the idea: tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in response.
When the law was passed by parliament and became law in February, it imposed fines of up to 3,600 euros (roughly $4,000) on adults who refused to be vaccinated. Unvaccinated citizens began to receive mandate letters warning that fines would begin in March.
But by the same month, the government commission in charge of overseeing the implementation of the mandate decided that the new cases, mostly related to the Omicron variant, did not pose such a big threat. The mandate was put on hold just a few days before the authorities were due to take over.
During its duration of just over a month, the mandate did little to increase vaccination rates. Approximately 74 percent of Austrians have received two doses of the vaccine, according to government figures. This is one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe and less than the European Union average.