Austria’s government will put forward legislation to make vaccination against coronavirus mandatory for all citizens from early next year, making it the first European country to do so, as infection rates continue to soar.
Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said on Friday morning that it was time “to face reality” as he announced a new three-week lockdown for all Austrians.
From February 1, a “general obligation” would apply for all Austrians to take a coronavirus vaccine, Schallenberg said.
The government, formed from Schallenberg’s conservative People’s party and Austria’s Greens, is likely to face a difficult political battle as it races to get the necessary legislation in force over the coming months, despite broad support from the leading opposition Social Democratic party.
“The political consensus has been against compulsory vaccination in this country and I also believed people should be persuaded to be vaccinated — for their protection, for the protection of their loved ones, but also for the protection of society,” the chancellor told reporters at a press conference in Tyrol, following late night discussions with Austria’s state governors.
“But we have too many political forces, flimsy vaccine sceptics and spreaders of fake news in this country . . . despite campaigns [too many] people have still not been vaccinated,” he said.
The mandate is likely to be fiercely resisted by the Austrian populist rightwing Freedom party, which has become increasingly outspoken against pandemic-related restrictions in recent months.
Some within Schallenberg’s own moderate conservative People’s party are also likely to oppose the move. Party head and parliamentary leader Sebastian Kurz — who was last month ousted as chancellor amid a corruption scandal — was in the past highly resistant to such sweeping measures.
The consequence of allowing resistance to continue, said Schallenberg, was “endless human suffering”.
No details of how the “general obligation” for vaccination in Austria will apply have yet been made public by the government.
So far only Indonesia, the Federated States of Micronesia, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan have made vaccinations compulsory.
“I have always emphasised that our goal must be to get the unvaccinated to vaccination instead of imprisoning the vaccinated,” said Schallenberg.
All bars, restaurants, non-essential shops and entertainment venues in Austria will be closed from Monday until December 13. A review will be conducted 10 days after the lockdown comes into effect to decide whether measures can be relaxed ahead of schedule.
Schools will remain open. After December 13, and regardless of any measures to reduce restrictions, unvaccinated people will continue to be ordered to stay at home and banned from public indoor spaces.
Austria has operated an effective lockdown since Monday for all citizens who have not been fully jabbed — about one-quarter of adults — in an effort to curb infections.
Austria reported a new record of 15,145 daily infections on Thursday, giving the country a rolling seven-day average of 12,163 daily new cases, or 130 cases per 100,000 residents — more than triple the EU-wide average.
Austria is part of a cluster of wealthy — and predominantly German-speaking — nations at the heart of Europe with poor vaccination rates.
In Germany, which has seen a steady rise in cases over the past week, the air force is preparing planes in case they are needed to transport Covid patients from the worst-affected areas to regions with more hospital beds, local media said.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany’s 16 federal state leaders announced on Thursday that hospitalisation rates would be used to determine new coronavirus restriction measures.
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