Austria announces mandate for Covid vaccine, crossing threshold for Europe

ROME – Austria on Friday became the first Western democracy to announce that it will mandate Covid vaccinations for all adult residents as it prepares for a nationwide lockdown from Monday.

Extraordinary measure by Austria, which only days ago separated itself from the rest of Europe by introducing itself Insurance for the unvaccinated, who are leading a wave of infections, made another worrying statement about the severity of the fourth wave of the virus in Europe, which is now the epicenter of the epidemic.

But he also showed it Increasingly desperate governments They are losing patience with vaccine skeptics and switching from voluntary to mandatory measures to promote vaccinations and beat a virus that shows no sign of abating, rattling global markets in the hope that a temporary economic recovery will fade.

some european countries, Including GermanyThat once seemed a model for how to manage the virus, is now facing the worst infection levels in nearly two years since the pandemic began.

Health authorities say the increase is being driven by stubborn resistance to vaccination in deep pockets of the population, and cold weather pushing people indoors and easing restrictions, rather than new variables.

“For a long time – perhaps for a very long time – I and others believed that people in Austria should be persuaded to voluntarily vaccinate,” Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said on Friday. “So we made a very difficult decision to introduce a national vaccine mandate.”

with its latest steps, Austria It is far ahead of other European countries that have reached a minimum that once seemed out of the question, but have not gone beyond. The announcement sparked an immediate threat of violent protest this weekend by leaders of the anti-vaccine movements and the far-right Freedom Party, who compared the government’s recent mandates to that of a dictatorship.

Many European countries have already set up mandates in all but name only – requiring strict health clearances as proof of vaccination, recovery from infection or a negative test to participate in most social functions, travel or go to work. Many are already asking children to be vaccinated against measles and other diseases to go to school.

The idea of ​​requiring adults to be vaccinated against Covid was a line Europe seemed unwilling to cross, however, with leaders often comparing their respect for civil liberties with that of authoritarian-style states.

But just as lockdown has become a fact of life, mandates for vaccines are becoming increasingly reasonable. German lawmakers voted in parliament on Thursday to force unvaccinated people to go to work or use public transport to submit daily test results. The country’s vaccination rate among adults is around 79 percent, according to data from the Robert Koch Institute in Germany. The rate is among the lowest in Western Europe.

On Friday, Jens Spahn, Germany’s acting health minister, was asked if a general lockdown was possible in the country. “We are in a position where nothing should be ruled out,” he said.

The specter of a lockdown in Germany, Europe’s largest economy, has strained European markets hungry for economic recovery and sales during the Christmas shopping season.

Austria’s health minister, Wolfgang Mochstein, said Austria’s new vaccine mandate would come into effect in February, hoping that there would be an incentive for as many people as possible to sign up for their initial vaccinations, but also to get booster doses.

That also gave leaders time to formalize the legal guidelines for authorization, he said, adding that there would be exceptions for people unable to vaccinate.

The Health Department said Friday’s announcement was only the first step in crafting a law that would establish the mandate, a process that would engage civil society and scrutinize it closely. She said details of how the law will be implemented and enforced will not be available until the process is complete.

The health minister said the government felt confident that a law could be drafted within the limits of the constitution, citing the previous national mandate to combat smallpox passed in 1948.

The measures appeared aimed at saving another ski season and Christmas in jeopardy.

The Austrian chancellor said the shutdown, the first since spring, would be assessed after 10 days and not extended beyond December 13, to ensure that people would be able to celebrate Christmas and that stores did not lose holiday sales. But the country’s economy minister was already working on a compensation package for some companies.

Austria recorded 15,809 cases of the new coronavirus in the past 24 hours, according to figures released on Friday, straining the country’s health system, which has reached its limits.

Roberto Burioni, a leading Italian virologist at San Raffaele University in Milan, said the explanation for the outbreak in Austria was “quite simple: lower vaccination rates, fewer procedures, a period of the year when respiratory viruses are common.” He described the refusal of many people in Austria to be vaccinated as “really disappointing”.

There has been no indication yet of a new species driving the infection.

Epidemiologists said the highly contagious delta variant had already grown to dominate most of Europe during the summer. They said that delta versions with new mutations appeared a few months ago, but none of them rose in a way that could explain the current increase.

Nor is waning immunity from vaccines likely to play a major role because most of Europe has lagged behind the United States in vaccinating its population.

Instead, the virus found room to spread among the unvaccinated, epidemiologists say, providing the virus—which seemed fleetingly battered—a foothold from which it spread across the continent.

Dramatically low vaccination rates in Eastern Europe, as in Romania and Bulgaria, have had dire consequences, with hospitalization rates as high there as at any time since the virus first emerged.

Italy, which shares a border with Austria, has attributed the high number of cases in its northern regions to infections from north of the border. Those regions in northern Italy have in recent days asked the national government to tighten restrictions against non-vaccinators, including a stricter health card.

The current Italian health card, known as the Green Passage, was until recently the strictest measure in Europe and was a prerequisite for business. It requires either a vaccination, a swab every day, or the last recovery from Covid.

In recent weeks, regional heads Suggestions on the table To apply any other restrictions exclusively to non-vaccinators. For now, those proposals have not been under serious consideration, Italian government officials said.

The government argued that the country’s early bold measures, after heated debate, helped produce high vaccination rates which for the time being allowed it to avoid measures like those in Austria.

But Alberto Sirio, president of the northern Piedmont region, said that to protect citizens who have been vaccinated, listened to science and carried out their public duty, actions must focus on punishing the unvaccinated.

He said lockdowns have proven effective tools, but he told Italian television on Friday that the question was “Who should we stop?” The answer, he said, was that she had clearly not been vaccinated.

In Greece, where infections have risen, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Thursday announced additional restrictions on the country’s unvaccinated population. From next Monday, he said during a televised address, access to more indoor spaces will be limited to vaccinators.

France required people to produce a vaccination certificate to enter public places such as theaters or museums, and expanded the rule in August to include restaurants and long-distance trains. The Czech Republic, which has recorded the highest number of cases since the beginning of the epidemic, will on Monday ban people who do not have a vaccination permit or evidence of previous infection with the Covid virus from its restaurants, bars and hair salons.

The governor of Saxony, Germany’s state hardest hit by the latest outbreak of the virus, announced restrictions starting on Monday, including a ban on certain events and large gatherings regardless of the vaccination status of those present.

The level of politicization around Covid vaccines, strongly opposed by some far-right and populist groups, and caution about the novelty of vaccines have fueled anti-vaccine skepticism.

Mr Schallenberg, the Austrian chancellor, specifically called on the parties that gave succor to such suspicions, apparently in reference to the far-right Freedom Party, which had already called a demonstration to protest the new measure on Saturday.

“We have a lot of political forces in this country that are fighting very hard and intensely against this,” he said. “This is irresponsible. It is an attack on our health system. Motivated by these anti-vaccination people and from fake news, many of us have not been vaccinated. The result is a full intensive care centers and massive human suffering. Nobody can want that.”

“For a long time the political consensus has been that we don’t want to mandate a vaccine, but we have to be realistic,” he added.

Jason Horowitz reported from Rome, and Melissa Eddy from Berlin. Christopher F Schwitz Contributed reporting from Berlin, Eliane Peltier from Brussels and Karl Zimmer from Connecticut.

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