Austria became the first country in Europe to introduce a national Covid-19 vaccine mandate for adults on Friday after President Alexander Van der Bellen signed it into law.
Austria’s sweeping measures will see those without a vaccine certificate or an exemption potentially slapped with initial fines of 600 euros ($680). Checks to see if the mandate is being adhered to begin from March 15.
Pregnant people and those who cannot be vaccinated without endangering their health are exempt from the law, according to the Austrian Health Ministry’s website.
The exemption also applies to people who recently caught Covid-19, and lasts 180 days from the date they received their first positive PCR Covid-19 test.
The new law will last until January 31, 2024 and could see unvaccinated people face a maximum fine of 3,600 euros ($4,000) up to four times a year if they are not on a vaccine register by their assigned vaccination date.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is pushing for a vaccine mandate as part of the country’s Covid-19 containment strategy, and a key vote on a potential vaccine mandate is expected at the end of March.
Both Germany and Austria have higher vaccination rates than the European Union average of 70.4% with two jabs, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. But their immunization rate, of 74% and 72.7% respectively, has not assuaged the concerns of health officials.
Legislation has already passed requiring vaccines for healthcare workers starting in March.
Germany has Europe’s second oldest population after Italy. On January 28, German Health Minister and epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach warned that the elderly population needed protection as many in those age groups remain unvaccinated.
There are four times as many unvaccinated Germans compared to the United Kingdom, and three times as many unvaccinated Germans compared to Italy, he added.
Lothar Wieler, head of Germany’s infectious diseases agency the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), warned at the same press conference that hospitals and intensive care units are starting to fill up again as Covid-19 infections reached record highs.
On Friday, the country reported a record 248,838 new cases.
Vaccines and no restrictions
As some European countries get tough with mandates, others are dropping Covid-19 regulations despite a surge in cases fueled by the Omicron variant.
Many of their leaders point to vaccines breaking the link between infections and severe illness.
Denmark, where 81.5% of the population is double-jabbed, lifted all Covid-19 restrictions on Tuesday despite soaring cases.
“At the same time as infections are skyrocketing, [the number of] patients admitted to intensive care [is] actually going down,” Søren Brostrøm, director-general of Denmark’s Health Authority, told CNN. “It’s around 30 people in ICU beds right now with a Covid-19 diagnosis, out of a population of 6 million.”
Other Nordic countries, like Norway, Sweden and Finland, announced the lifting of many of their Covid control measures this week, pointing to their highly vaccinated populations and low hospitalization figures.
The decision was taken in Norway based on the impact of the Omicron variant, Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Stør said Tuesday, noting the variant was causing less severe illness, helped along by the country’s successful vaccination rollout.
Sweden, where only 70.4% of the population has had two shots, is set to remove most Covid-19 restrictions next week, officials said on Thursday.
After initially eschewing the lockdowns favored by its European neighbors, Sweden eventually imposed restrictions on public life. Restrictions were most recently tightened in early January when a curfew was imposed on Swedish bars and restaurants.
According to Thursday’s press release, Swedish officials have now deemed the Covid-19 situation “stable enough” to commence the ease of restrictions. This was justified by the fact that Omicron has not caused “as serious a disease as previous variants” and the country’s healthcare system has not been severely impacted, it added.
CNN’s Joseph Ataman, Camille Knight Henrik Pettersson and Niamh Kennedy contributed to this report.