Austria Starts Criminalizing Vaccine Holdouts in Divisive Gamble

Austria is embarking on a dramatic public health experiment, making Covid-19 vaccines mandatory for everyone.

Austria Starts Criminalizing Vaccine Holdouts in Divisive Gamble
A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Astrazeneca Covid-19 vaccine in Mexico City. (Photographer: Jeoffrey Guillemard/Bloomberg)

Austria is embarking on a dramatic public health experiment from Tuesday, with a controversial new law that makes Covid-19 vaccines mandatory for everyone. 

Multiple European countries have stigmatized people who refuse a vaccine, but Chancellor Karl Nehammer’s government is going further and will start criminalizing holdouts. 

Police will begin checking the vaccination status of people on the street and during traffic stops. Beginning in mid-March, offenders who haven’t had a shot will face fines rising to as much as 3,600 euros ($4,050). The law, which received a record number of public comments before being passed, runs through 2024 and has catalyzed a broad sweep of protesters. 

Austria Starts Criminalizing Vaccine Holdouts in Divisive Gamble

Political and public-health analysts suggest the policy is replete with risk. With opposition lawmakers rebelling and tens of thousands of protesters regularly thronging Vienna’s streets, Nehammer -- less than two months in the job -- is facing a huge test.

But for European governments, which are starting to rapidly roll back Covid restrictions, getting as many people vaccinated as possible is seen as key to returning life to normal. Denmark, which has one of the highest vaccine rates in the world, last week reclassified Covid as no longer a threat to society.

Austria’s initial announcement of the mandate, along with the rollout of vaccines for children, led to a bump in shots in November, but the pace has since slowed again. About 76% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to a Bloomberg tracker, ahead of the EU average but behind leaders such as Portugal, Spain and France.

Austria Starts Criminalizing Vaccine Holdouts in Divisive Gamble

While some countries have made inoculation compulsory for health workers, and Germany is debating a broad mandate, none have yet gone as far as Austria. In the U.S., the Supreme Court recently rejected a federal mandate, though many companies have imposed their own requirements.

Austria’s divisive policy puts it in the midst of a global vaccine controversy that’s flared up in surprising ways. Recent drama has ranged from Australia’s deportation of tennis star Novak Djokovic to musicians pulling their work from Spotify because of concern about misinformation in podcasts.

The shift toward police enforcement underscores both the gravity of the current pandemic, and exposes the vulnerability of Austria’s ruling People’s Party, according to VE Insight political analyst Marcus How.

“The People’s Party is not doubling down on the vaccine mandate from a position of strength,” How said. “Polls indicate that public opinion is wavering, including on the center-left, with a narrow majority having emerged that either does not support the mandate or believes its implementation should be delayed.”

Early Test

Almost 100,000 Austrians have registered their opposition, with some lawyers arguing the mandate could violate fundamental rights. For Nehammer, a 49-year-old former army officer who became Austria’s third chancellor in three months on Dec. 6, what may have seemed like an opportunity to show his strong-man credentials is becoming an early test of his position.

“I see myself as a bridge builder,” he told Vienna’s Profil magazine in an interview last week.

At the same time that Austria penalizes vaccine holdouts, it will also start loosening other restrictions -- allowing nightclubs to stay open later and phasing out obligatory vaccine checks at retail shops. The government is also introducing lotteries to reward people who’ve gotten the jab.

Determining whether the measures succeed in building back trust will take time, according to Maria Hofmarcher-Holzhacker, a health economist who’s written a history of Austrian public health. Austria’s Covid battle has at times been dominated by tensions between the government’s tough stance and opposition from powerful regional leaders. It’s also suffered from mixed messages.

“The legislation is compensating for that failure,” she said. “I’m not sure if this is something for other countries to replicate.” 

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.