Austria imposes full COVID lockdown, makes vaccination mandatory

Austria becomes first western European nation to reimpose broad and strict measures as virus cases hit fresh records.

On Thursday, a new record of more than 15,000 cases were recorded in the Alpine EU member of nearly nine million people [File: Georg Hochmuth/AFP]

Austria will become the first country in Western Europe to reimpose a full coronavirus lockdown to tackle a new wave of infections and will require its whole population to be vaccinated by February, its government has said.

Friday’s announcement came as roughly two-thirds of Austria’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in western Europe.

The country’s infection rate is among the highest on the continent, with a seven-day incidence of 991 per 100,000 people.

Austria had introduced a lockdown for all those who were unvaccinated on Monday but since then, infections have set new records.

The two worst-hit provinces, Salzburg and Upper Austria, said on Thursday they would introduce their own lockdowns, raising pressure on the government to do the same nationally.

“We have not succeeded in convincing enough people to get vaccinated,” Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg told a news conference, saying the lockdown would start on Monday.

He blamed those refusing to be vaccinated for an “attack on the health system” and said, “it hurts that such measures still have to be taken.”

Public scepticism about vaccines has been encouraged by Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, the third-biggest in parliament, which is planning an anti-lockdown protest on Saturday.

Tight restrictions

The new measures mean people are no longer allowed to leave their houses with few exceptions such as shopping for essentials and exercising.

Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane, reporting from neighbouring Germany’s capital, Berlin, said Austrians had in recent weeks faced a “sliding scale” of gradually imposed restrictions.

“Now they are into full lockdown and clearly the reason for this is because the incidence of COVID-19 in many parts of Austria is now in four digits – more than 1,000 cases per 100,000 people,” he said.

“That is a very considerable number and for many politicians in Austria right now, it is too much.”

The issue of whether to impose additional COVID-19 measures in Austria deepened a rift between Schallenberg’s conservatives and their coalition partner, the left-wing Greens.

Schallenberg said only days ago that he did not want to enforce extra restrictions on the unvaccinated, even as Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein called for a nighttime curfew.

But the chancellor said on Friday that those who refused to be vaccinated would now face fines, adding the details would be finalised in the coming weeks.

“For a long time, the consensus in this country was that we didn’t want mandatory vaccination,” Schallenberg said. “For a long time, perhaps too long.”

Europe confronts surge in cases

With cold weather setting in, many European governments have been forced to consider bringing back measures to curtail the virus, including unpopular lockdowns.

A fourth wave has plunged Germany, Europe’s largest economy, into a national emergency, Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Friday.

He urged people to reduce their social contacts, warning that vaccinations alone would not lower case numbers.

Asked if Germany could rule out an Austrian-style full lockdown, Spahn said, “We are now in a situation – even if this produces a news alert – where we can’t rule anything out.

“We are in a national emergency,” he told a news conference.

Hungary, which also neighbours Austria, is making wearing masks indoors again compulsory from Saturday, the government said on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands has reimposed a partial lockdown, with bars and restaurants closing at 8pm (19:00 GMT).

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies