BERLIN — Austria, the only Western country to introduce a blanket coronavirus vaccination mandate, is abandoning the policy months after deciding to suspend the app, 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 began.
Health Minister Johannes Rauch said the mandate had not led to an increase in vaccinations, but had “deepened the divisions in the population”.
“I am convinced that this will not help us achieve the goal of motivating as many people as possible to do a vaccination booster in the fall,” he said. “If anything, it will do the opposite.”
Vaccination rates in Austria have lagged behind much of the rest of Western Europe, and plans for the mandate were announced in November, when a severe wave of infections caused by the Delta variant threatened to overwhelm its health system. But the idea was not popular with everyone: tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in response.
When the legislation passed parliament and was signed into law in February, it imposed fines of up to 3,600 euros (about $4,000) on adults who refused to be vaccinated. Unvaccinated citizens began receiving letters about the mandate, warning that fines would begin in March.
But that month, a government commission overseeing the mandate decided that the new cases – which were mainly due to the Omicron variant – were not such a big threat. Enforcement of the warrant was suspended just days before authorities were supposed to begin enforcing it.
While in effect for just over a month, the mandate did little to accelerate the pace of vaccination. Around 74% of Austrians have received two doses of the vaccine, according to government figures. This represents one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe and below the European Union average.