Austria says it is putting its COVID-19 vaccine mandate on ice

Swearing-in ceremony of new Health Minister Rauch in Vienna
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By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) -Austria is suspending its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, its ministers for health and constitutional affairs said on Wednesday, six days before fines for breaches were due to start being imposed.

The measure, the most sweeping in the European Union as it applied to all adults with few exceptions, has been in effect since Feb. 5, but enforcement was only due to begin on March 15.

"We will...suspend the vaccine mandate in accordance with the principle of proportionality," constitutional affairs minister Karoline Edtstadler told a news conference.

"Why? Because there are many convincing arguments at the moment that this infringement of fundamental rights is not justified."

The decision to introduce the mandate was announced in November, before the wider emergence of the highly contagious but less severe Omicron variant of the coronavirus in Austria. Because Omicron has tended to cause fewer severe cases than previous variants, the strain on intensive-care units has eased.

Politically the vaccine mandate has become a liability for the conservative-led government and the favourite target of the far-right and anti-vaccination Freedom Party, the third biggest in parliament.

It has done little to raise one of the lowest vaccination rates in western Europe, and scepticism about it has grown since restrictions barring the unvaccinated from places such as bars and restaurants have been scrapped in most of Austria.

New daily COVID-19 infections hit a new record of 47,795 on Wednesday, official data published after the news conference showed, reflecting the recently loosened national restrictions.

Edtstadler said the government was following the recommendation of a panel of experts that must regularly review the public health and constitutional law aspects of the mandate and which presented its first report on Tuesday.

She and Health Minister Johannes Rauch said the mandate could yet be reintroduced if necessary, with the next review due within three months.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)