VIENNA: Austria is suspending its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, its ministers for health and constitutional affairs said on Wednesday (Mar 9), six days before fines for breaches were due to start being handed out.
The measure has been in effect since Feb 5, but enforcement was only due to begin on Mar 15.
The decision to introduce it was announced in November, before the wider emergence of the highly contagious but less severe Omicron variant in Austria. The strain on intensive care units has since eased.
The Alpine nation of 9 million people was among few countries in the world to make jabs against the coronavirus compulsory for all adults.
The plan was for police in mid-March to start checking people’s vaccination status during traffic stops and checks on coronavirus restrictions. People who could not produce proof of vaccination would be asked in writing to do so and would be fined up to €600 (US$653) if they did not. Fines could reach €3,600 if people contested their punishment.
But constitutional affairs minister Karoline Edtstadler told a news conference the law's "infringement of fundamental rights" could no longer be justified.
"We will ... suspend the vaccine mandate in accordance with the principle of proportionality," said Edtstadler.
"Why? Because there are many convincing arguments at the moment that this infringement of fundamental rights is not justified," she added.
She 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 to the government on Tuesday.
"Just like the virus keeps on changing, we need to be flexible and adaptable," Edtstadler said.
She and Health Minister Johannes Rauch said the mandate could yet be reintroduced if a new variant made it necessary.
"Today is not the last chapter we are writing on the subject of the vaccine mandate," she said.
Tens of thousands have demonstrated in regular weekend rallies across the country since the government said last November that it would seek to force people to get jabbed in an effort to boost the staggering vaccination rate.
But the rate of those considered fully protected against the virus has hardly changed in recent week, hovering around 70 per cent of the population.
That group includes people who are vaccinated, those who have recovered, or a combination of both.
Calls to review the law -- including from within the ruling conservative People's Party -- have also become increasingly loud as Austria has dropped many restrictions.
As of Tuesday, Austria has recorded almost 3 million coronavirus cases and more than 15,000 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.