Austria drops mandate for COVID-19 vaccine, saying it divides society

BERLIN – Austria’s health minister announced on Thursday that the country is withdrawing a dormant coronavirus vaccine mandate, saying the measure has the potential to polarize society and even reduce the number of people vaccinated.

The government announced plans last year to require everyone aged 18 and over to be vaccinated against COVID-19, the first country in Europe to do so. The law went into effect in February, but lawmakers suspended the task ahead of police enforcement by mid-March.

Health Minister Johannes Rauch said the emergence of new virus variants had changed citizens’ perceptions of the effectiveness and necessity of vaccination, even for those who were willing to do so.

That could prevent them from voluntarily receiving booster shots that could help contain the fall outbreak, he said.

“The vaccine mandate is holding back some people who would normally be vaccinated, thinking: I’m not going to be told what to do,” Rauch said.

He said current difficulties, such as inflation and high energy prices, as well as fears of the war in Ukraine, had led to social tensions.

“We need every millimeter of solidarity and cohesion to deal with the months and years ahead,” Rauch said. “The debate around mandatory vaccinations and the hardening of positions on the issue has torn the rifts and removed that unity.”

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