VIENNA – Austria announced a national lockdown and plans to make vaccinations mandatory as coronavirus infections hit a record high on Friday, forcing the government to roll back promises that strict shutdowns were a thing of the past. It was a matter.
While the scope of the proposed mandate was unclear, a blanket requirement for a Western country would be the first. Chancellor Alexander Schellenberg said fines would be imposed on those who did not comply, but gave no other details.
Vaccination rates in Austria have come as one of the lowest in Western Europe, and hospitals in the hard-hit states have warned that their intensive care units are reaching capacity. Average daily deaths have tripled in recent weeks – although the number of deaths recorded in the past week is well below last winter’s highs and 13 US states are already reporting more deaths per 100,000 people.
Earlier this month, Schellenberg indicated that a complete lockdown would not be needed and instead only those who were not vaccinated would be banned.
The lockdown will begin on Monday and will initially last for 10 days, when it is reevaluated, Schellenberg said. From February 1, the country will also make vaccination mandatory – although the chancellor gave few details about what this means or how it will work.
“Increasing vaccination rates – and I think we all agree on this – is our only way out of this vicious cycle of viral waves and out of lockdown discussions for good,” Schalenberg said. “We don’t want a fifth wave, we don’t want a sixth and seventh wave.”
Austria is one of several Western European countries where infections are rising rapidly and where there are concerns that vaccination rates, while relatively high, are insufficient to stem a winter increase in hospitalizations.
Thanks to mass vaccinations, hospitals in the region are no longer under the pressure they were previously in the pandemic, but many are still under pressure to handle the growing number of COVID-19 patients while staffing exhausted or ill. Also trying to clear the backlog.
According to government figures, 66% of Austria’s 8.9 million have not been fully vaccinated. It has tried various measures to promote it further. Like many European countries, it introduced a “green pass” – which showed proof of vaccination, recovery from COVID-19 or a negative test result and was required to enter restaurants and attend cultural events.
“There are a lot of political forces in this country that oppose[vaccination]vigorously, extensively and publicly. … This is really an attack on our health system,” Schellenberg said. “The result is overcrowded intensive care. units and enormous human suffering.”
An expanded vaccine mandate would make Austria one of the world’s most stringent requirements – but many countries have imposed targeted mandates or restrictions on what people without vaccination can do.
The US government is moving forward with requiring mandatory vaccines or routine testing for every worker in the country in businesses with more than 100 employees – though opponents have challenged this in court. In addition, many corporations and governments across the country have implemented their own vaccine requirements.
France required health care workers to receive the vaccine, and Britain recently announced a similar rule for health workers working with the public. Meanwhile, Slovakia announced it would ban people who have not been vaccinated from all non-essential shops and shopping malls.
Austria’s new lockdown is the fourth since the pandemic began and the country has struggled without success to contain spiraling case numbers. On Friday, the country reported 15,809 new infections, the highest ever.
When it goes into effect early Monday, restaurants, Christmas markets and most stores will be closed and cultural events cancelled. People will only be able to leave the house for certain reasons, including buying groceries, going to the doctor or exercising.
The country’s health minister Wolfgang Mückstein said kindergartens and schools would remain open to those who need them, but told all parents to keep their children at home if possible.
On Friday afternoon, one of the city’s main shopping areas, Vienna’s Mariahilfer Strae, was packed with people – but many welcomed the news about the lockdown, some even saying they wished the government had done it sooner. Only action would have been taken.
“To be honest, it’s coming too late in my opinion,” said 21-year-old Luca Eder.
Austria’s intensive care doctors also welcomed the government’s decision, warning that it was only a matter of time before their wards were flooded.
“The record infection figures that we have experienced day by day now will only be visible in general and intensive care units with a lag of time. It is really high time for a full stop,” Walter Haseebeder, president of the Society for Anesthesiology, Resuscitation and Intensive Care Medicine, told Austrian news agency APA.
The situation is particularly dire in the regions of Salzburg and Upper Austria, which have been particularly hard hit by the increasing number of cases. For example, in Salzburg, the seven-day rate of new infections is almost double the national average.
Hospitals in both states have warned that their ICUs are reaching capacity, and in Salzburg they have begun discussing potentially only the worst cases.
The health minister, Mueckstein, said several factors contributed to the current situation, including lower-than-expected vaccination rates in Austria and the seasonal impact of the virus. But he also apologized for the initial reluctance of state and federal leaders to implement stronger measures.
“Unfortunately, we have also fallen short of our standards in some areas as the federal government,” he said. “I want to apologize for that.”
The impact of the lockdown will be assessed after 10 days. If the virus cases have not reduced sufficiently, it can be extended up to a maximum of 20 days. In addition, booster shots are now available to all vaccinated people, starting four months after their second dose.
Government officials had long promised that those vaccinated would no longer face lockdown restrictions: in the summer, then-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz declared the pandemic “over” for those who had received the vaccine. But as the cases of the virus kept increasing, the government said that it had no option but to spread it to all.
Alexander Dienhoble, who works as a tour guide and sat on a bench in central Vienna on Friday, said the nearly two years since the pandemic began have been difficult for his industry. But he said the current situation has shown that there are no easy answers when it comes to defeating the virus.
“There is no wonder weapon against COVID right now,” he said.
Grischber reported from Berlin; Philippe Jan contributed from Vienna.