Photo by Hans Punz
Artillery Row

The Austrian solution

Mandating vaccination by criminal sanction may sound draconian, but then again Austria has historic form for this sort of thing

Godwin’s Law has it that the longer an issue gets debated, the higher the probability that someone will bring in a comparison involving the Nazis or Adolf Hitler.

In the case of Austria’s newly-announced decision to make Covid vaccinations mandatory by law from February next year, we can short-circuit all that by observing right from the outset that it’s pretty Hitlery. We can also note early on, too: that as the birthplace of Adolf Hitler and an enthusiastic embracer of Nazism back in the day, Austria has historic form for this sort of thing.

Austria has placed itself in the elite company of Turkmenistan, Micronesia and Indonesia

Having got all that out of the way, it is entirely appropriate to reel in shock that the government of a modern and prosperous central European country should enforce by sanction of criminal law the injection of a powerful drug into the bodies of all its citizens. By doing so Austria has placed itself in the elite company of Turkmenistan, Micronesia and Indonesia, as a country prepared to command vaccine uptake.

That it should take such a power in the face of a third wave of a disease with a fatality rate of around 0.5 per cent in an unvaccinated population (or 0.1 per cent in a population as vaccinated as the UK is) appears even more astonishing. We are hardly dealing with Ebola here (approximate fatality rate, 50 per cent).

Neither does Covid inoculation offer striking levels of protection against transmitting the disease to others, which seems to me the only potential ethical defence for the state over-riding individual free will on such an invasive matter. The primary result of Covid vaccination is to protect the person being injected from developing serious disease. Voluntarily choosing to be inoculated is the obvious way an Austrian citizen can protect himself against risk of death. Most studies suggest that none of the available vaccines offers more than a marginal defence against transmitting the disease to others.

Amid growing signs of a fourth wave of Covid sweeping across mainland Europe, only two-thirds of Austrian adults are yet double-vaccinated. That’s one of the lowest proportions of any European country, a sign of vaccine hesitancy that has been detected more generally in Germanic countries.

Presumably measures will not include being forcibly injected

Austrian chancellor Alexander Schallenberg announced on Friday a 20-day national lockdown alongside the looming legal requirement to be jabbed, declaring simply: “We do not want a fifth wave.”

It is yet to be made clear what sanctions and penalties will be enforced against vaccine refuseniks. The withdrawal of access to public services is one possibility and so are fines. Presumably measures will not include being rounded up, strapped down and forcibly injected. Though not many steps can be entirely discounted in the war on Covid these days.

One slightly comforting possibility is that we may be seeing Austria’s more alarming version of the Downing Street “nudge” unit, which has sought to encourage more widespread immunisation via various threats that have not transpired. The idea that citizens in England would be required from the end of September to show a vaccine passport before being allowed to attend many events and venues was one such prospect that fell by the wayside as the deadline approached.

Perhaps it is in Mr Schallenberg’s mind to enlist the generally conformist nature of his populace by associating vaccine refusal with criminality, causing a stampede to vaccination centres that will allow him to announce some time in January that the planned criminal sanction is no longer required. But again, one cannot count on that, especially given that his country has already imposed restrictions on the movements of the unvaccinated that are far more draconian than anything Boris Johnson’s nudge team has ever floated.

Austria now unquestionably leads the pack for steamrollering civil liberties

There are times, and this is one, where a European human rights regime that is too often used to protect the interests of criminals over the law-abiding should come into its own. But the most learned legal opinions cast doubt on whether compulsory vaccination is a flagrant breach of any of the articles of the European convention. It is at best an arguable case dependent on particular circumstances. By the time anyone gets a case all the way to the Strasbourg Court for a ruling the measure will already have come and hopefully gone.

In the wider European context, Mr Johnson’s imposition of three lockdowns and taking of extraordinary powers under the Coronavirus Act legislation that was last month extended by the Commons for a third time still places him at the relatively libertarian end of the spectrum.

While Austria now unquestionably leads the pack for steamrollering civil liberties, measures more extreme than anything seen in the UK were imposed at one time or another in most mainland European countries. There are powerful establishment forces that will still seek further restraints on individual liberty in the UK witness the recent clamour for “Plan B” restrictions that were not justified by trends in the data. But in fending them off, Johnson did show a degree of political courage.

It may not be enough to get him on Lord Sumption’s Christmas card list, but by the time Covid finally exits its long epidemic phase and we learn to live and sometimes die with it, Britain may be seen to have been the doughty defender of freedom and Austria the birthplace of something much more sinister. Oops, I did it again.

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