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Lockdowns for the unvaccinated and mandatory jabs: How Europe is tackling Covid’s fourth wave

Vaccination strategies and return-to-office policies vary greatly from country to country

Across Europe, governments are choosing to tighten rules for those who have not been vaccinated against Covid-19 in a bid to avoid blanket lockdowns as a new wave of infections fills hospitals. Photograph: iStock

Across Europe, governments are choosing to tighten rules for those who have not been vaccinated against Covid-19 in a bid to avoid blanket lockdowns as a new wave of infections fills hospitals.

Some countries are tweaking their rules to reduce infections and incentivise people to get the vaccine. Many approaches differ to that of Ireland, where on the one hand Covid certificates are required to access bars and restaurants, but no proof of vaccination is needed to attend the office, hospital or college.

In western Europe, Germany, Austria and Switzerland have the largest unvaccinated populations.

After its Covid-19 cases doubled in five days, Austria tightened its rules this week so that in most of the country, a negative test will no longer be accepted for entry to public spaces. Only proof of vaccination or recovery is accepted under the so-called “2G” rule.


This applies to entry to restaurants, bars, cafes, hotels, theatres, cinemas, cable cars, hairdressers, beauty salons, and any event with more than 25 people. It also applies for workers in any workplace which involves any contact with other people, including passing through a corridor or reception.

In most of Austria, the "2G" rules applies for people aged 16 and up, with 12-15-year-olds permitted to show a negative PCR test instead. However, in the capital Vienna, the vaccination or recovery requirement applies to those aged 12 and over.

Of the total Austrian population, 68 per cent have at least one dose, according to the EU vaccination tracker. The number of people being vaccinated surged after the announcement of the rules. There is a phase-in period up to December 5th, until which point a first dose and a negative PCR test will be accepted. The EU Covid certificate is accepted as proof, as well as the local Grüner Pass or yellow vaccination booklet.

The government has also imposed a booster shot requirement, by stipulating that proof of vaccination is valid only for nine months after the second dose, and until January 3rd in the case of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Access to shops, supermarkets and public transport is not restricted. However, it is compulsory to wear an FFP2 mask (a fitted, particle-filtering mask certified according to safety standards). These are stipulated for any situation in which a facemask is mandatory: cloth or ordinary surgical masks are not allowed.

On Thursday, chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said the country was days away from introducing a lockdown for unvaccinated people. He said it would mean “one cannot leave one’s home unless one is going to work, shopping [for essentials], stretching one’s legs – namely exactly what we all had to suffer through in 2020”.

Unlike many European countries, neighbouring Germany does not require compulsory vaccines even for care workers in homes for the elderly.

But some German regions including the capital Berlin are to introduce an Austrian-style "2G" rule requiring proof of vaccination or recovery for public leisure venues. Meanwhile, the parties set to form the next government are debating how measures can be tightened to cope with an infection surge and vaccination rate below 70 per cent.

To boost its vaccine rate of 64 per cent, Switzerland launched a "vaccination week" this week with open-air concerts and mobile vaccine units. A Covid certificate is required to enter public venues such as restaurants and bars, and free tests for entry purposes have been phased out in a bid to encourage vaccination.

Italy was an early mover in making Covid-19 certificates compulsory for all workers – public and private, on October 15th – encompassing a group of some approximately 23 million people.

Introduced under emergency legislation in force until at least the end of the year, the law allows for suspension without pay for those without a certificate. It sets out fines of €600-€1,500 for workers caught in the workplace without one, as well as sanctions for employers who fail to enforce the rules.

In effect it means that in order to access the workplace, people without proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19 have to take a rapid antigen test every 48 hours, or a PCR test every 72 hours at their own expense.

There have been weekly protests against the rules, but opinion polls indicate a solid majority of the public support the measure: 67 per cent were in favour versus 30 per cent against in a recent Emg/Adnkronos survey.

Prime minister Mario Draghi credited people choosing to get inoculated including those "who chose to do it in the last weeks, overcoming their hesitations" with keeping the pandemic "under control".

The rules do not apply to children aged under 12, or people who are certified as medically exempt from vaccination. Overall, 78 per cent of Italy’s total population have received at least one dose. The country is set to offer booster jabs to all people aged 40 and over in the coming weeks.

Proof of vaccination, a negative test or recovery – referred to as a “green pass” in Italy – is required to access most public venues and for inter-regional transport. However, enforcement in individual businesses can be patchy on the ground.

Similar to Italy, in Greece most unvaccinated workers must show a negative test procured at their own expense to enter the workplace. Vaccination has been compulsory for health workers across the public and private sector since the start of September. As infections surged this month, authorities announced that unvaccinated people would also have to test negative twice a week to access state services, banks, cafes, and restaurants. The national vaccination rate for the whole population with at least one dose is 62 per cent, according to EU figures.

Since mid-September, vaccination has been compulsory for health workers in France, as well as for public professionals such as police and firefighters. Those who do not comply can be suspended without pay.

Since the summer, the Covid pass (called a “pass sanitaire” in France), has been required for long-distance travel, shopping malls, in the catering industry, and most leisure, culture, and sport settings.

There have been weekly protests against the pass. However, this week French president Emmanuel Macron announced the rules would be tightened: all those called for a booster shot must take it, to prevent their Covid passes from expiring. People aged over 65 have been called for booster jabs since the end of the summer, and this will be extended to the over-50s from next month.

“A booster campaign was launched at the end of the summer for all those aged over 65 and the most fragile. We must now accelerate it,” Macron said in a televised address. “More than 80 per cent of people in intensive care are over 50 years old.”

Across the whole population, over 76 per cent of people in France have received at least one dose, according to EU figures.

The vaccination rate is higher in neighbouring Belgium. There, prime minister Alexander De Croo has long been an opponent of compulsory vaccination. Belgium was one of the countries that was initially sceptical of plans for an EU Covid pass, and pushed for it to include the options of a negative test and proof of recovery from the disease.

De Croo, a liberal conservative, said in an interview this week that he had “never been a big fan” of Covid passes in general, but that at the moment “it is the general interest which counts, beyond my personal convictions”.

Initially used only in the capital Brussels, the Covid pass was recently extended to access public spaces nationwide such as restaurants and gyms. Visitors to hospitals and elderly care homes are also required to show the pass. Public establishments also have compulsory ventilation standards and must display monitors showing the level of carbon dioxide, which reflects how much customers are breathing shared air, a key infection risk. Face masks are generally mandatory indoors.

However, some European Union institutions have gone further. The European Parliament has introduced a compulsory vaccination requirement for all of its venues in Brussels, Strasbourg, and Luxembourg, in the face of fierce resistance from staff unions. Five MEPs and some staff have secured a temporary exception allowing them to show negative tests instead, pending the outcome of a legal appeal. Currently, visitors to the European Commission must show their EU Covid pass, but this does not apply to staff.

The Netherlands
The Netherlands will impose western Europe's first partial lockdown since the summer this weekend, in a bid to stop a surge in Covid-19 cases, Dutch broadcaster NOS said on Friday.

Bars, restaurants and non-essential stores will be ordered to close at 7pm for at least three weeks starting on Saturday, NOS said, citing government sources.

People will be urged to work from home as much as possible, and no audiences will be allowed at sporting events in the coming weeks. Schools, theatres and cinemas would remain open.

The government’s pandemic advisory panel on Thursday recommended imposing a partial lockdown and limiting entrance to public places to people who have been fully vaccinated or have recently recovered from a coronavirus infection.

Elsewhere in Europe, Denmark has reintroduced the Covid pass for public venues two months after dropping it. In Finland, where bars and restaurants were allowed to open without restrictions if they checked for passes, venues that implemented it were targeted with negative reviews accusing them of discrimination, according to local media.

In eastern Europe, a low rate of vaccination is blamed for a dramatic wave of infections that has made Europe the centre of the pandemic once again, according to the World Health Organisation. In Romania, the senate recently narrowly rejected a law that would have required medical staff, public sector employees and workers in large private firms to have a Covid pass. The government had hoped to boost a vaccination rate languishing at 38 per cent for at least one dose, the second-lowest rate in the EU after Bulgaria.

Covid passes are in use domestically in some form in Cyprus, Hungary, Latvia, Slovenia, Portugal, and parts of Spain, including the Canary Islands where employers can refuse entry to workers without one. – Additional reporting: Reuters