Austria announced a national lockdown and a plan to mandate vaccinations as coronavirus infections hit a record high Friday, forcing the government to walk back promises that strict shutdowns were a thing of the past. While the scope of the proposed mandate was unclear, a blanket requirement would be a first for a Western country. Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said those who didn’t comply would likely be fined but gave no other details.
The moves come as vaccinations in Austria have plateaued at one of the lowest rates in Western Europe, and as hospitals in heavily hit states have warned that their intensive care units are reaching capacity. Average daily deaths have tripled in recent weeks — though the number of fatalities reported over the past week remains well below the high of last winter and 13 US states are already seeing more deaths per 100,000 people.
Earlier this month, Schallenberg indicated a full lockdown would not be needed and instead imposed the restrictions only on those not vaccinated.
The lockdown will start Monday and initially will last for 10 days when it will be reevaluated, Schallenberg said. Starting Feb. 1, the country will also make vaccinations mandatory — though the chancellor gave few details about what that meant or how it would work.
Austria is among several Western European countries where infections are rising rapidly and where there are concerns that vaccination rates, while relatively high, are insufficient to hold off a winter surge at hospitals.
Thanks largely to inoculation, hospitals in the region are not under the same pressure they were earlier in the pandemic, but many are still straining to handle rising numbers of COVID-19 patients while also attempting to clear backlogs with exhausted or sick staff.
Not quite 66 per cent of Austria’s 8.9 million are fully vaccinated, according to government figures. It has tried various measures to boost that further. Like many European countries, it introduced a “green pass” — which shows proof of vaccination, recovery from COVID-19, or a negative test result and was required to enter restaurants and attend cultural events.
A wide vaccine mandate would make Austria one of the most stringent requirements in the world — but many countries have imposed targeted mandates or restrictions on what unvaccinated people can do.
Austria’s new lockdown is its fourth since the pandemic began and comes as the country has struggled without success to stop spiraling case numbers. On Friday, the country reported 15,809 new infections, an all-time high.
When it takes effect early Monday, restaurants, Christmas markets and most stores will close, and cultural events will be canceled. People will be able to leave their homes only for certain reasons, including buying groceries, going to the doctor or exercising.
Wolfgang Mueckstein, the country’s health minister, said that kindergartens and schools would remain open for those who needed them, but all parents were asked to keep their children at home if possible.
On Friday afternoon, Vienna’s Mariahilfer Strasse in one of the city’s main shopping areas was packed with people — but many welcomed the news about the lockdown, with some even saying they wish the government had acted sooner.
Austria’s intensive care doctors also welcomed the government’s decision, warning that it was only a matter of time before their wards are swamped.
The situation is especially dire in the regions of Salzburg and Upper Austria, which have been particularly hard hit by the rising case numbers.
Hospitals in both states have warned that their ICUs are reaching capacity, and in Salzburg, they have begun discussing potentially only taking the worst cases.
After 10 days, the lockdown’s effects will be assessed. If virus cases have not gone down sufficiently, it can be extended to a maximum of 20 days. In addition, booster shots are now available to all vaccinated people starting four months after their second dose.
Angela Merkel terms Germany COVID-19 situation 'very serious'
Germany approved new measures Thursday to rein in record coronavirus infections as Chancellor Angela Merkel called the pandemic situation in the country “very serious” and said it was “high time” to contain the spread of the virus.
“The situation is highly dramatic and it will be very important now that action is taken quickly, that action is taken consistently, that better control is taken,” Merkel told reporters Thursday night in Berlin.
Merkel said participants in the meeting had agreed that tightening of measures against the virus would in the future be linked to the number of hospital admissions of COVID-19 patients per 100,000 people over a seven-day period. The states are also considering mandatory vaccinations for some professional groups such as medical staff and nursing home employees.
The new measures include requirements for employees to prove they are vaccinated, recently recovered from COVID-19 or have tested negative for the virus in order to access communal workplaces; a similar rule will apply to public transport. The measures need to be approved by Germany’s upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat.
(With inputs from AP)