Vaccination against coronavirus will become a legal requirement from February, the Austrian chancellor Alexander Schallenberg has announced. The country is also going back into full lockdown, becoming the first western European nation to reimpose blanket Covid-19 closures. From Monday 22 November, vaccinated and unvaccinated alike will be under restrictions as non-essential shops, as well as bars and restaurants, close.
The announcement comes as Austria battles a winter wave of cases that is straining hospital systems, in common with much of Europe. It registered a record high of 14,416 cases on 18 November, with the seven-day incidence at 925 cases per 100,000 people.
The government had imposed a “lockdown for the unvaccinated” on 15 November, just a week before the national shutdown is due to come into force. However, as coronavirus infections take at least five days and sometimes as many as two weeks to show up, the new policy had little time to take effect and failed to contain the rise in cases. The national lockdown is to last between 10 and 20 days, the government says.
Austria’s generalised vaccine mandate is a first for Europe. Only a few nations – Micronesia, Indonesia and Turkmenistan – have imposed a wholesale requirement for all eligible residents to take the jab. Some European countries require staff in certain professions, such as care and health workers, to be vaccinated. Many also impose restrictions of varying onerousness on the unvaccinated, who face restrictions on which venues they may enter. But Austria is the first to make vaccination of all those eligible a legal requirement.
That is a significant step. As Samantha Vanderslott, a health sociologist at the University of Oxford, told me this summer, there is little precedent in the rich world for the mandatory vaccination of adults against coronavirus. Enforcing the vaccine mandate may prove tricky, and the government is so far light on details about how it plans to apply the new rules.
Austria’s policy is virtually certain to face resistance from some sections of society. Its constitutionality and proportionality is likely to be challenged by, among others, the far right. The Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) has styled itself as the defender of the around two million Austrians who remain unvaccinated. Its leader, Herbert Kickl, says he is unvaccinated.
Even so, the measures are likely to pass. Both the lockdown and the vaccine mandate could be emulated by other European countries also facing a resurgence of the virus in the colder months.
Unlike many other European countries, Austria’s government had long been reluctant to introduce vaccine passports, which could have helped nudge up the country’s vaccination rate, one of the lowest in western Europe. Many Austrians, despondent at the prospect of yet another shutdown, will now be asking why their government failed to act faster.