Facing a surge of COVID-19 cases, Austria is going back into a national lockdown and said it will require its entire population to get vaccinated against the coronavirus by early next year. The moves are the strictest yet taken by any country in Europe, which has become the new epicenter of the global pandemic.
The national lockdown — the first in Europe this fall — starts early on Monday and will initially last for ten days before being reevaluated. Under the measures, Austrians will be asked to work from home and most stores will close. It could be extended for a further ten days, Reuters reports.
Beyond the lockdown, Austria will also require its entire adult population to get vaccinated by February 1, 2022 — making it the first western democracy to announce a universal COVID-vaccine mandate.
“Increasing the vaccination rate is our only way to break out of this vicious cycle of viral waves and lockdown discussions for good,” Austrian chancellor Alexander Schallenberg told reporters on Friday. “We don’t want a fifth wave, we don’t want a sixth and seventh wave.”
Earlier this month, Schallenberg had indicated a full lockdown would not be needed and instead imposed restrictions only on those who were not vaccinated. But vaccinations in Austria have plateaued at one of the lowest rates in Western Europe; fewer than 66 percent of Austria’s 8.9 million people are fully jabbed, according to Our World in Data. Average daily deaths have also tripled in recent weeks, and hospitals have begun being overwhelmed in multiple Austrian states. The 15,809 COVID-19 cases reported in the country on Saturday set a new daily record.
“The most recent measures have increased daily vaccinations but not enough,” Schallenberg said Friday, according to Politico. “For a long time, it was consensus in the country that a vaccine mandate is not necessary, but we have to face reality.”
Austria isn’t the only European country ramping up measures to curb the spread of COVID
Many other European countries are imposing new restrictions as cases rise. In neighboring Germany, currently reeling under a fourth wave of infections, officials announced plans on Thursday to introduce targeted COVID-19 restrictions on the unvaccinated in order to tame the “dramatic” and ”very worrying” COVID-19 situation, as outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel described it. The Netherlands also announced it would be going back into a three-week nationwide partial lockdown after rising cases threatened to overwhelm the country’s hospitals. Meanwhile in France, where COVID-19 cases are rising, but from a much lower baseline than in other Western European nations, President Emmanuel Macron has said a lockdown for the unvaccinated wasn’t necessary, pointing to the success of the the country’s health-pass system, which requires proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for many activities.
The new restrictions have prompted demonstrations
Stricter COVID-19 guidelines in Europe are begetting unrest. A demonstration against the Dutch government’s plans to impose a partial lockdown turned violent on Friday night in downtown Rotterdam. Rioters reportedly tore through the city’s central shopping district, set fires, and threw rocks and fireworks at police — who opened fire on protesters amid some of the clashes.
There were more, largely peaceful demonstrations against COVID restrictions throughout Europe on Saturday, including again in the Netherlands, as well as in Croatia, Italy, Northern Ireland, and Switzerland.
On Saturday in Austria, some 35,000 protesters — including many members of far- and extreme-right groups and people espousing conspiracy theories — took to the streets in the country’s capital, Vienna, to demonstrate against the new nationwide measures. The leader of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (who is currently diagnosed with COVID and, thus, couldn’t attend Saturday’s protest) appeared via video and claimed the new rules set the country on track for “dictatorship.”
The protest remained peaceful through the day, but at night, clashes were reported between protesters and police.