ROME – Austria on Friday became the first Western democracy to announce mandatory Covid vaccinations for all adults as it prepares for nationwide isolation starting Monday.
Austria’s emergency measure, which just a few days ago split from the rest of Europe, introducing isolation for the unvaccinated, which is causing a spike in infections, made another alarming statement about the severity of the fourth wave of the virus in Europe. , now the epicenter of the pandemic.
But it also showed that increasingly desperate governments are losing patience with vaccine skeptics and are shifting from voluntary to mandatory measures to promote vaccinations and fight a virus that is showing no signs of abating, shaking global markets in anticipation that economic recovery will still be a trial one. canceled.
Several European countries, including Germany, which once seemed like a model for how to manage the virus, are now facing their worst infection rates in nearly two years since the pandemic began. The spike in growth has been fueled by stubborn resistance to vaccinations in the deep sections of the population, cold weather forcing people indoors, easing restrictions and possibly declining immunity among previously vaccinated, health officials said.
“For a long time – maybe too long – I and others thought it was possible to convince people in Austria to voluntarily get vaccinated,” Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said Friday. “So we made a very difficult decision to introduce a national vaccine mandate.”
In its last step, Austria was well ahead of other European countries, which slowly approached, but did not cross the threshold, which once seemed unthinkable. The announcement sparked an imminent threat of violent protest this weekend from anti-vaccine leaders and the far-right Freedom Party, who have compared recent government decisions to dictatorship mandates.
Many European countries have already introduced mandates in full, other than the name, requiring strict health passes as proof of vaccination, recovery from infection, or a negative test to participate in most social functions, travel or work. Many already require children to be vaccinated against measles and other diseases to attend school.
The notion that adults should be vaccinated against Covid was a border that Europe seemed reluctant to cross, yet leaders often pitted their respect for civil liberties against authoritarian countries.
But just as isolation became a fact of life, vaccination mandates are becoming more and more credible. German legislators in parliament voted Thursday to force unvaccinated people to go to work or use public transport to provide daily test results. The country’s adult vaccination rate is around 79 percent, one of the lowest rates in Western Europe.
On Friday, Jens Spahn, Germany’s acting health minister, was asked if a general isolation of the country was possible. “We are in a position where nothing can be ruled out,” he said.
The specter of isolation in Germany, Europe’s largest economy, has raised concerns in European markets hungry for economic recovery and sales during the Christmas shopping season.
Austria’s new vaccination mandate will take effect in February in the hope that as many people as possible will be motivated to sign up for their initial vaccinations as well as revaccinations, Austrian Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein said.
It also gave leaders time to formalize legal guidelines to fulfill their mandate, he said, adding that there will be exceptions for people who cannot get vaccinated.
The health ministry said Friday’s announcement was only the first step in drafting a law that would establish mandate, a process that involves civil society and careful scrutiny. Details on how the law will be implemented and enforced will not be available until the process is completed, the post said.
The health minister said the government was confident the law could be drafted within the framework of the constitution, citing the previous national smallpox mandate, passed in 1948.
Nov 19, 2021 11:20 AM ET
These measures seemed to be meant to save another Christmas and ski season.
Roberto Burioni, a leading Italian virologist at the University of San Raffaele in Milan, said the cause of the outbreak in Austria is “very simple: lower vaccination levels and fewer measures, and this is the period of the year when respiratory viruses are spreading.” He called the refusal of vaccinations by so many people in Austria “really disappointing.”
The Austrian Chancellor said the insulation, one of the first since spring, will be assessed in 10 days and won’t last longer than December 13 so that people can celebrate Christmas and that stores don’t get lost in holiday sales. … But the country’s economy minister was already preparing a compensation package for some enterprises.
Austria has recorded 15,809 new cases of coronavirus in the past 24 hours, according to data released Friday, putting a strain on the country’s health system that has reached its limit. So far, there has been no indication of a new variant causing infections. Instead, the virus has found a place to spread among the unvaccinated in the country.
Epidemiologists claim that the unvaccinated suggested a virus that seemed momentarily discarded and traveled back across the continent.
Low vaccination rates in Eastern Europe, such as Romania and Bulgaria, have been disastrous, with hospitalization rates as high as at any time since the virus emerged.
Italy, which borders Austria, attributes the surge in its northern regions to a contagion from the north. In recent days, these northern Italian regions have asked the national government to tighten restrictions on the unvaccinated, including a stricter health passport.
Italy’s current health certificate, known as the Green Pass, was until recently the toughest measure in Europe and a prerequisite for working. This requires either a vaccination, a swab every other day, or a recent recovery from Covid.
In recent weeks, regional presidents have come up with proposals to apply any further restrictions exclusively to the unvaccinated.
Italian government officials said the proposals are not being taken seriously at the moment, but it is likely that medical workers and caregivers will be given revaccinations.
The government argued that the country’s first bold action after a vigorous debate helped to achieve high vaccination rates, which temporarily made the country protected and avoided measures such as those taken in Austria.
But Alberto Sirio, president of the northern region of Piedmont, said that in order to protect citizens who have been vaccinated, listened to science and fulfilled their public duty, measures must focus on punishing the unvaccinated.
He said the blockages had proven to be effective tools, but told Italian TV on Friday that the question was, “Who should we stop?” He said the answer was clearly unvaccinated.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced on Thursday additional restrictions on the unvaccinated population of Greece, where infections have skyrocketed.
Starting next Monday, access to more premises will be limited to those vaccinated only, he said during a televised address. Proof of a negative test result will no longer be sufficient for unvaccinated people to visit cinemas, theaters, museums and gymnasiums.
France has required people to show a vaccination certificate to enter public places such as theaters or museums, and in August expanded the rule to include restaurants and long-distance trains. The Czech Republic, which has the highest incidence since the start of the pandemic, will ban people without missing vaccinations or proof of previous Covid infection from visiting their restaurants, bars or hairdressers on Monday.
On Friday, the governor of Saxony, Germany’s worst-hit by the latest virus outbreak, announced new restrictions starting Monday, including a ban on certain events and larger gatherings, regardless of vaccine status among those present. Gov. Michael Kretschmer said state legislators will approve the measures on Friday.
The level of politicization of the Covid vaccine, which some far-right and populist groups strongly oppose, and concerns about the novelty of the vaccines have heightened skepticism against the vaccine.
Mr Schallenberg, Austrian Chancellor, specifically named the parties that supported such skepticism, apparently referring to the far-right Freedom Party, which had already convened a protest demonstration against the new measure on Saturday.
“We have too many political forces in our country that are fiercely and massively fighting this,” he said. “This is irresponsible. This is an attack on our health care system. Spurred on by these anti-vaccination opponents and fake news, too many people among us have not been vaccinated. The consequence is overcrowding in intensive care units and enormous human suffering. Nobody can want that. “
He added: “There has been a political consensus for a long time that we do not need a mandate for vaccines, but we need to be realistic.”
Jason Horowitz reported from Rome, and Melissa Eddie from Berlin. Christopher F. Schueze provided reports from Berlin and Eliane Peltier from Brussels.