Austria Announces Nationwide Lockdown and Plans Vaccine Mandate
The nationwide lockdown is Europe’s first since spring. And the national vaccine mandate is a first for the continent.
Austria announces a lockdown and vaccination mandate for all.
In Vienna, the Austrian capital, on Thursday.Credit…Leonhard Foeger/Reuters
Austria will go into a nationwide lockdown on Monday and impose a coronavirus vaccination mandate in February, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said on Friday. It is the first such lockdown in a European nation since the spring, and the first national vaccine mandate to be announced in a Western democracy.
Austria has one of Europe’s highest national coronavirus infection rates, with 14,212 new cases registered in 24 hours on Thursday. And the Alpine country has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe, with just 66 percent of the population fully inoculated.
Recent restrictions on unvaccinated people have failed to bring the outbreak sufficiently under control, leading to the measures announced on Friday.
“For a long time — maybe too long — I and others assumed that it must be possible to convince people in Austria to voluntarily get vaccinated,” Mr. Schallenberg said on Friday. “We therefore have reached a very difficult decision to introduce a national vaccine mandate.”
The lockdown, reminiscent of those imposed across Europe last winter, before coronavirus vaccines were available, will last for at least 10 days and affect both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Schools, where students are tested regularly, will remain open, as will grocery stores.
“We have 21 months of the pandemic behind us, and we know we can only end this when we vaccinate enough people,” Health Minister Wolfgang Muckstein said, adding that the lead-time of several months was needed to prepare for the mandate, including clarifying the legal situation.
In a sign of soaring worry over the latest fourth wave, Austria just days ago went a step further than most countries by announcing a lockdown on unvaccinated people. That will remain in place after the full lockdown expires, Mr. Schallenberg said.
Requiring people to be vaccinated against Covid starting on Feb. 1 broke new ground again, and Mr. Schallenberg defended the decision, citing the high number of Austrians who had refused to get a shot and the divisive political climate that supported them.
The far-right Freedom Party, whose leaders have proudly resisted the vaccines on grounds of personal liberties, called for a demonstration on Saturday against the new measures.
“For a long time, the political consensus has been that we do not want compulsory vaccinations in this country,” Mr. Schallenberg said when announcing the new measures. “But we have to face reality.”
Austria’s new measures epitomize a painful reality that several European countries face: Current rates of vaccinations, albeit among the highest in the world, have not been enough to prevent a surge of infections as winter sets in and more people remain indoors.
Vaccinations have been shown to vastly limit infections — and the severity of infections. Inoculated people have been protected from hospitalization in intensive-care units and death from the virus.
In Germany, where nearly 79 percent of adults have been vaccinated but where infections have reached record highs in recent weeks, Parliament voted to force unvaccinated people going to work or using public transit to provide daily tests.
On Friday, the governor of Saxony, Germany’s hardest-hit state, announced new restrictions starting on Monday, including a ban on events and gatherings for people regardless of their inoculation status. The governor, Michael Kretschmer, said that state lawmakers would approve the measures on Friday afternoon.
The leaders of four regions in Italy have called on the national government to impose a lockdown on unvaccinated people — even as Italy’s entire work force is now required to either be vaccinated or tested regularly for the virus.
In Belgium, where the number of patients in intensive-care units is the highest since May, the authorities have made working from home mandatory for four days a week until Dec. 12.
Eastern European countries like Bulgaria and Romania, where vaccination rates are the lowest in the European Union, are facing record hospitalizations and deaths. Croatia, Slovakia and Slovenia are recording their highest numbers of infections since the pandemic began.