Austria’s government proposed on Sunday setting the minimum age for mandatory coronavirus vaccinations against COVID-19 at 18 and rolling out the programme in stages from Feb. 1, seeking to build broad consensus for the disputed step.
The conservative-led government had said last month it intended the mandate to apply to all people aged 14 and up, the first European Union country to make vaccinations compulsory for the general population.
“This is not a fight between the vaccinated and unvaccinated,” Chancellor Karl Nehammer, just emerging from quarantine after contracting COVID-19, told a news conference in Vienna a day after thousands marched against the plan.
Nehammer said the government needs to press ahead because too many remain unvaccinated to allow people to mingle freely, stressing the need to avoid more lockdowns.
Nearly 72% of Austria’s population has a valid vaccination certificate. Many Austrians are sceptical of vaccines, a view encouraged by the libertarian-minded, far-right Freedom Party, the third biggest in parliament.
Parliament is scheduled to vote on the plan this week.
Critics of vaccine mandates say that apart from the issue of personal freedoms, current jabs do not prevent viral transmission or re-infection and that the now dominant Omicron variant of the coronavirus appears to be milder, causing less serious illness, than previous variants.
Nehammer said an entry phase of mandatory inoculations would last until mid-March and give people another chance to get jabs without being fined if caught in an inspection.
People who are still not vaccinated will get reminders, and in a third phase get invitations to vaccination appointments that will trigger penalties if not taken up.
“In the best case we won’t even need this third phase,” Nehammer said.
Holdouts face fines of 600 euros ($685) per violation or up to 3,600 euros in all, but not jail time, officials said.
As infections set records in the Alpine republic late last year, the government announced a fourth national lockdown and said it would make vaccinations compulsory for all.
Exceptions apply for people who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons or are pregnant.
Austrian health authorities have reported more than 1.4 million infections and nearly 14,000 deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic broke out in early 2020.
The government is keen to avoid reintroducing a full lockdown like the one the country emerged from last month, its fourth of the pandemic.