As Austria announced today that it will go into its fourth nationwide lockdown amid soaring cases of Covid-19 infections, the Alpine country will also become the first European country to make vaccinations against Covid 19 mandatory starting in February 2022.
Asked by journalists at a press briefing at the United Nations in Geneva whether vaccinations should be compulsory, Fadela Chaibe, the spokesperson of the World Health Organization (WHO) said “No, immunization policies are decided within the national domain. It is up to countries to decide. WHO guidance aims to demonstrate the benefits and safety of vaccines for the greatest possible acceptance of vaccines rather than impose mandatory vaccination. So, this is the official WHO position.”
Austria, a country of 8.9 million, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe — only 65.7% of the population are fully vaccinated.
Elizabeth Throssell, Spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) emphasized that “the requirement that states employ should be the least intrusive option to achieve the desired results”. She added that “they really should use all measures available to encourage people to get vaccinated in the first place. That includes public information campaigns and particular those aimed at communities and groups that are marginalized or have a higher rate of vaccine hesitancy. We would say that that is important. Obviously, Austria has decided to proceed to mandatory vaccination.”
Earlier this month, Austria introduced rules that barred unvaccinated people from restaurants.
According to WHO’s Fadela Chaib, “countries should really take a risk-based approach to make a decision in curbing the transmission of Covid based on assessment of their own epidemiological situation.”
She added that “it has some, as I said, ethical, human rights implications. So, countries should look at this very closely and take into consideration also groups of people who cannot get vaccinated because of any medical condition. Or, they do not have access to a vaccine, this is also a situation where people want to get vaccinated, but they don’t have access to vaccines.”
WHO’s spokesperson also stressed that “the solution is not only in the hands of governments, it’s also the individual behavior to try to curb down the number of Covid and to reduce transmission.”
OHCHR’s Liz Throssells also refers to the principles of international human rights law where restrictions must be necessary, proportionate and non-discriminatory.
“Restrictions must be based on law that is in force and publicly accessible”, Ms Throssell said. ‘Necessary’ and what we mean by that is that be that restrictions or the actions taken must be necessary to achieve a legitimate aim and, in this case, we are talking about public health. And they must respond to a pressing social need. So obviously the context of this is rising covid cases in some countries. ‘Proportionate’: the action must be proportionate to the interest at stake, proportionate to achieve its aim and it should be the least intrusive option among those that could be achieved. And this is really an important final point here is ‘non-discriminatory’.”
While countries including Italy and France have made vaccination against Covid-19 mandatory for health workers, Austria will be the first country in Europe to apply such a requirement for the society at large.