Austria puts unvaccinated under lockdown as Covid-19 rates across Europe soar

Austria has become the first country in Europe to impose a lockdown on those who refuse to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Restrictions are being reimposed across the continent in the face of rapidly rising infections, and several countries have moved to limit the freedoms of the unvaccinated.

But Austria is the first to place them under a strict lockdown similar to those seen last winter, while those who have been vaccinated remain free to lead normal lives.

"We are not taking this step lightly, but unfortunately it is necessary," Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said.

“It’s clear to me the vaccinated should not face a lockdown out of solidarity for the unvaccinated.”

For the next ten days, two million unvaccinated Austrians will now only be able to leave home for essential purposes, such as food shopping. The measures will be enforced with random spot checks and stepped up police patrols before the government reviews the policy.

Children under the age of 12 and those who can prove they have recently recovered from the virus will be exempt. 

Austria, a country of just 10m people, recorded 11,798 new cases of the virus in 24 hours on Friday and has a 7-day incidence of 779 per 100,000 inhabitants.

The country lags far behind most of Europe on vaccinations. There is a large and voval anti-vaxxer movement and only 65 per cent of Austrians are fully jabbed.

Austrian chancellor Alexander Schallenberg announcing the new rules

Credit: LEONHARD FOEGER
/REUTERS

“Before Covid, fundamental rights were unconditional," said Markus, a 40-year-old tour anti-vaxxer and guide who declined to give his last name. "Now we are getting more and more into a point where fundamental rights become conditional. This is always justified as serving a higher purpose. We know from the past, that there was always a higher purpose for which the individual had to sacrifice himself, whether it was God, the empire, the people or the leader."

“I cannot approve of the division of society into two parts. It is certainly not good for the country. It will have consequences. I am firmly convinced of that," said Michael, an unemployed 61-year-old anti-vaxxer from Burgenland.

Under the new rules, the unvaccinated will only be allowed to leave their homes for essential reasons such as work, to shop for food or take exercise, while the vaccinated will be free to move around. Police will carry out spot checks.

The lockdown will initially only apply in the regions of Upper Austria and Salzburg, but Mr Schallenberg said there was  “green light” for it to be extended to the entire country as soon as Monday.

In Upper Austria, the worst affected region, restaurants will not be allowed to open at night for the next three weeks.

Ten countries in the European Union are now areas of “high concern” over the virus, the European Centre for Disease Control warned on Friday. They include the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, the Czech Republic and Greece.

Anti-lockdown protesters and antivaxxers gather in The Hague, Netherlands

Credit: Pierre Crom
/Getty Images Europe

An anti-riot police officer throws a flare burning a scooter in a canal in The Hague, Netherlands

Credit: Pierre Crom
/Getty Images Europe

The Netherlands went into three weeks of partial lockdown from Saturday. Non-essential shops and services are to close by 6pm, while food services and essential shops must shut by 8pm. There will also be a work-from-home mandate, and limits to receiving just four guests at home.

The decision by the government sparked furious protests in several cities across the Netherlands. Hundreds of young people gathered in a central square in Leeuwarden, setting of fireworks and flares while media reported that bars in the southern city of Breda remained open beyond the new lockdown mandated closing time.

The Dutch government took action after the country saw a new record for daily infections on Thursday, with 16,364, despite the country being one of the most vaccinated in the world, with 85 per cent of the population fully jabbed.

A vaccine booster campaign was only announced last week and is set to begin with the over-80s in December. But there is a hard core of people who have not been vaccinated, and 12 per cent of adults have not had any jabs at all.

New coronavirus infections in the Netherlands, a country of 17.5 million, have increased rapidly

Credit: Niels Wenstedt/Getty Images Europe

In Germany, several regions this week imposed tougher new rules limiting access to restaurants, bars, cinemas and gyms to the vaccinated and those who have recovered from the virus.

Under previous rules they were also open to the unvaccinated if they could show a recent negative test.

Germany’s disease control centre, the Robert Kock Insitute (RKI), called on people to restrict their contacts and cancel or avoid large events as the country recorded 48,640 new cases on Friday.

“We must now do everything necessary to break this momentum,” said Jens Spahn, the health minister. “Otherwise it will be a bitter December for the whole country.”

The German 7-day incidence is now 263.7 but vaccination rates remain low, with only 67.4 per cent of people fully jabbed.

In France, pensioners rushed to book appointments for a booster jab this week following President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement this week that a third shot will be mandatory for over-65s and those deemed high-risk from December 15.

A sign at a restaurant in France warning a health pass is required

Credit: Jean-Luc Ichard
/iStock Editorial

Without the booster, their health passes will no longer be valid, meaning they will not be able to enter bars, restaurants, cinemas or long-distance trains or planes.

Almost 77 per cent of the population have had two jabs but only 24.2 per cent of the over 65s have received a booster.

There were 12,603 new infections in the past 24 hours in France. In the past seven days, 2,099 people were admitted to hospital with Covid and 497 were in a serious condition.

“This clearly looks like the start of a fifth wave,” Olivier Véran, the health minister, said on Wednesday. “The spread of the virus is accelerating.”

In Italy, all people over 40 are being encouraged to get a third jab as the number of new infections rises steadily. There were 8,569 new cases of Covid-19 in Italy on Thursday, up from 7,891 the day before

“For the third week running we have had an increase in the new weekly cases and a daily average that has more than doubled in a month,” said Nino Cartabellotta, the president GIMBE health foundation.

Denmark, one of the first EU countries to lift restrictions in September, was one the first to reimpose them on Friday.

The country has reintroduced its “coronapas”  app, requiring people to show proof of vaccination status or a negative test result to enter restaurants, bars, cafés, nightclubs, cinemas, and theatres.

Denmark has seen a sharp resurgence in cases in recent months, with 3,017 on Wednesday, the highest daily rise since last Christmas.

"We cannot let the virus run wild in Denmark,” Mette Frederiksen, the Danish prime minister, said this week.

A customer shows a coronavirus pass in Denmark

Credit: TOM LITTLE
/AFP

Neighbouring Norway also reintroduced its coronavirus health pass on Friday after recording its highest ever infection rate this week ,with 2,126 testing positive on Tuesday.

In Sweden, there is little sign of a significant resurgence yet, but testing rates have declined by more than a third after the country’s public health agency ruled that vaccinated people no longer need to be tested even if they have symptoms.

But state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell warned this week that Sweden was unlikely to be spared the surge in infections seen elsewhere, with a rise in cases “almost inevitable”.

Poland has so far resisted imposing new restrictions, despite seeing 19,074 new infections and 274 deaths on Thursday. Schools remain open, and Poles do not have to produce a proof of vaccination to enter a bar or a restaurant.

Spain, one of the worst hit countries last year, is a rare case of good news this week, with a 7-day incidence of just 39, only 1.5 per cent of hospital beds occupied by coronavirus patients and deaths down to around 10 a day.

The country has one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe, with 89 per cent of over-13s fully jabbed. Among over-60s the rate rises to over 99 per cent.

But as cold weather has begun to arrive in many parts of Spain, infections are on the rise, especially in northern regions such as Navarre, where the local government has said it is prepared to introduce a Covid passport system to control access to public spaces.

Additional reporting by Senay Boztas in Amsterdam, Henry Samuel in Paris, Nick Squires in Rome, Richard Orange in Malmo, Matthew Day in Warsaw, and James Badcock in Madrid.

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