Austria is scrapping its vaccine mandate, four months after it became the first EU country to make jabs obligatory for all adults and as infection rates across Europe are rising again.
The controversial law was introduced amid great international interest in February but never enforced. It has been suspended since March.
Austria’s health minister, Johannes Rauch, said he had seen the need for mandatory vaccinations when the Delta variant had dominated in the country.
“But Omicron has changed the rules”, the Green party politician said. Since infections with the now-dominant strain tended to be milder and vaccines appeared less effective at preventing infection, it had become harder to convince people to get their first jab.
“The vaccine mandate won’t convince anyone to get vaccinated”, he said, pointing to studies showing that those already sceptical of vaccines had not been swayed by the threat of fines.
The vaccine law originally foresaw that people over the age of 18 who declined to take a jab would face penalties of up to €3,600 (£3,000) unless they were pregnant or severely ill.
“The vaccine mandate and the debate around the vaccine mandate have opened up deep rifts in Austria’s society,” Rauch said. At a time in which the Ukraine war, rising household costs and the energy crisis were putting further strain on social cohesion “every millimetre [of] solidarity and togetherness” was required.
Austria, like other European countries, is experiencing a significant surge in new Covid-19 infections as most restrictions across the continent have been lifted and immunity is starting to wane.
According to the Our World in Data scientific aggregator, the rolling seven-day average of confirmed new cases per million inhabitants is increasing in countries including Portugal, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece, the Netherlands and Denmark.
Portugal has experienced the most dramatic wave, with infections per million at a seven-day average of 2,043 on Monday – the second highest new case rate in the world, although down somewhat from an early June high of 2,878.
In Austria, confirmed cases have been increasing steadily since the start of June, though infections remain way off the country’s highest wave in March. The situation on its intensive care wards is comparable with the low occupancy levels of last summer.
Around 74% of Austria’s adult population is vaccinated against the virus, a rate that has been stagnant since the beginning of March.
Austria’s vaccine mandate phase-in was followed with great interest in Germany, where Olaf Scholz’s three-party coalition government had announced its intention to follow suit.
But plans for a comparable vaccination mandate in the spring began to falter in February, when a growing number of politicians indicated they would withhold their support in parliament. On 7 April, the Bundestag rejected a general vaccine mandate by 378 to 296 votes.