Austria is set to become the first country to make Covid vaccines mandatory by law, and has announced a new national lockdown beginning Monday as Europe grapples with a fourth wave of Covid.
Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said the lockdown would last a “maximum of 20 days,” and that people would be required to get vaccinated beginning on February 1.
“For a long time, the political consensus has been that we do not want compulsory vaccinations in this country,” Mr Schallenberg said this morning. “But we have to face reality.”
Announcing the new lockdown, Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein added: “Nobody wants a lockdown — the lockdown is the very last resort, a crude instrument. A lockdown is always an imposition, but it is the most reliable instrument we have to break this fourth wave.”
People will be permitted to leave their homes only for essential purposes such as groceries, work, and exercise under the new rules. Only supermarkets and stores selling necessities will be permitted to remain open.
The announcement comes just days after Austria imposed a ban on unvaccinated people, signalling a rapid escalation in Covid restrictions that could pave the way for neighbouring countries to follow suit.
Austria has one of the lowest immunisation rates in Western Europe, with approximately 66% of its population fully vaccinated.
Yesterday, the country recorded 15,145 new infections, an eightfold increase over the previous month.
The figure has yet to translate into a significant increase in Covid-related deaths, which remain significantly lower than levels seen in Austria last winter. Yesterday, the country recorded 55 coronavirus-related deaths.
It comes as countries across Europe impose increasingly stringent restrictions in the face of a major outbreak of infections this Christmas.
Germany has seen a record number of cases in recent days, with 68,366 new infections on Thursday, a 40% increase from the same day last week.
After extending the use of Covid passports to almost all businesses and public spaces, the country is considering following Vienna’s lead and imposing a lockdown for the unvaccinated.
The Czech Republic, where 58% of people are fully vaccinated, followed Austria’s lead this week by declaring a lockdown on those who refused a Covid jab — approximately 4.25 million citizens.
Similar health measures are being considered in Italy and Greece. On Wednesday, Italy reported a massive increase in Covid infections, with cases exceeding 10,000 for the first time since May.
Italy, like many other European countries, requires people to show their Covid Green Pass when dining indoors, visiting museums and cinemas, or taking long-distance public transportation. The pass demonstrates proof of vaccination, a recent negative test, or a previous Covid infection.
Following a recent surge in cases, Greece has also imposed stricter restrictions on its unvaccinated population, including barring them from all indoor spaces such as cinemas, museums, and gyms.
Coronavirus-related deaths in Greece are at their highest in six months, with roughly one-third of the population still unvaccinated.
Tightening restrictions across Europe have raised fears that a fourth Covid wave will soon arrive on British shores.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said earlier this week that a new lockdown over Christmas is not out of the question as “storm clouds [gather] over parts of the continent.”
However, the United Kingdom appears to be in a much better position than its European counterparts, with high uptake of the booster dose among the most vulnerable offsetting more sluggish uptake of the first and second doses among younger cohorts.
Mr Johnson stated that there is “nothing in the data” that indicates the government will have to impose Plan B measures over the winter.
The Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, added that if Covid rates remain at their current levels, additional measures may not be required. Infections had been “broadly flat” for weeks, he said, advising people not to “over-interpret slight downturns and slight upturns” in daily numbers.