Austria lockdown: What will it entail and why are Covid cases spiking in Europe?

Northern province of Alpine nation planning unvaccinated-only stay-at-home order in response to rising coronavirus cases, and national measure could follow if it succeeds

Joe Sommerlad
Monday 15 November 2021 05:01
<p>Austrian chancellor Alexander Schallenberg</p>

Austrian chancellor Alexander Schallenberg

The government of Austria has placed about two million of its unvaccinated population under strict lockdown as of Monday to combat the spike in Covid-19 cases.

“We are not taking this step lightly, but unfortunately it is necessary,” Austria’s chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said on Sunday while announcing the new measure.

An estimated 65 per cent of Austria's population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. However, that is one of the lowest rates in western Europe.

"In reality, we have told one-third of the population: you will not leave your apartment anymore apart from for certain reasons. That is a massive reduction in contacts between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated," Mr Schallenberg said.

According to interior minister Karl Nehammer, citizens will be subjected to police checks and fines up to € 1,450 (£ 1237) for breaches. The police have been instructed to check people's vaccination status.

"As of tomorrow, every citizen, every person who lives in Austria must be aware that they can be checked by the police," Mr Nehammer said at a news conference.

Official Covid-19 passes proving vaccination, recovery from Covid-19 or recently tested for the virus, has been required for months in various places including restaurants, theatres, cafes and hairdressers. The passes will continue to be required in those places, with unvaccinated citizens no longer allowed in.

From Monday onwards all non-essential shops, where no such passes are required, will be off-limits to the unvaccinated.

The Alpine nation recorded 11,975 new Covid-19 cases in 24 hours on Thursday and 760.6 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days, a rate three times higher than that of neighbouring Germany.

Chancellor Schallenberg said in late October that a new lockdown might become necessary if cases continue to rise - and they have, despite fresh intermediary measures introduced on Monday barring unvaccinated people who haven’t recovered from an infection from visiting restaurants, hotels, hairdressing salons, cinemas, ski slopes and other large public places.

Speaking during a visit to the western city of Bregenz on the shores of Lake Constance on Thursday, the chancellor said a new stay-at-home order was now “probably unavoidable” for the unvaccinated and that they faced an “uncomfortable” Christmas.

“I don’t see why two-thirds should lose their freedom because one-third is dithering,” he said.

“For me, it is clear that there should be no lockdown for the vaccinated out of solidarity for the unvaccinated.”

He added that his country’s vaccine rate - around 65 per cent of the population - was “shamefully low” but insisted that: “We can break this wave together.”

Anti-vaccine sentiment has been encouraged in Austria, as elsewhere in the world, by right-wing populist groups like the Freedom Party, who frame the debate as a matter of personal choice, rather than a simple civic duty intended to protect both individuals and society as a whole.

The arrival of winter flu season in Western Europe, alongside the still pernicious presence of the coronavirus, continues to represent a significant public health risk, especially given that most states have now abandoned mandatory mask orders and social distancing measures in favour of encouraging vaccine takeup.

Austria’s worst-hit province, Upper Austria, looks set to take the lead.

The northern region of 1.5m people borders Germany and the Czech Republic and has recorded 1,200 new cases per 100,000 residents over the last week, giving it the country’s highest transmission rate alongside the lowest vaccine uptake.

Its governor, Thomas Stelzer, said on Thursday that officials were planning “a lockdown for unvaccinated people from Monday, provided that there is a legal green light from the federal government, or rather that the federal government creates the legal basis.”

Should the Upper Austria measures succeed in driving down the infection rate, it is likely a similar approach will be adopted elsewhere.

Germany is also concerned by rising Covid infection rates and recorded more than 50,000 new cases for the first time on Thursday.

There, the state of Brandeburg is adopting similar measures to Austria in barring the unvaccinated from visiting cafes, restaurants, hotels, cinemas and theatres from Monday.

Chancellor Angela Merkel called on her citizens to get their jabs for the sake of others, saying on Thursday: “You have the right to get vaccinated. But, to a certain extent, you also, as a member of society, have the duty to be vaccinated to protect yourself and to protect others.”

Germany’s vaccination rate is around 67.5 per cent of its population, not much better than Austria, but the Netherlands is up to 85 per cent and yet it is that country that could become the first European nation to impose new national lockdown measures since the summer, possibly announcing the step as soon as Friday evening.

The Cabinet of Dutch caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte is reportedly considering whether to introduce a new, three-week partial shutdown to tackle a fresh outbreak that saw the Netherlands hit a record 16,300 cases on Thursday and its hospitals placed under renewed pressure.

Bars, restaurants and non-essential stores will be ordered to close at 7pm, according to Dutch broadcaster NOS, while citizens will be asked to work from home and stay away from sporting events, although schools, theatres and cinemas will remain open.

Looking at the bigger picture, the World Health Organisation’s director for Europe, Dr Hans Kluge, said last week that a 10 per cent rise in coronavirus deaths on the continent meant it was “back at the epicentre of the pandemic”, pointing to high numbers in Russia, the UK, Germany and Eastern Europe.

Additional reporting by agencies

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