Austria faces major protests over lockdown and mandatory Covid vaccines

Germany also considers tighter restrictions as both countries post low vaccination rates

Police officers check the vaccination status of visitors during at a Christmas market in Vienna on Friday. Photograph: Lisa Leutner/AP

Vienna is bracing itself for massive demonstrations on Saturday against a 20-day national lockdown, imposed from next Monday in a bid to break a runaway fourth wave of Covid-19.

At least 10,000 people are expected to attend a rally in the Austrian capital organised by the populist opposition Freedom Party (FPÖ). On Friday it described the new restrictions – and plans for a Covid-19 vaccine mandate from February – as proof that Austria "is now a dictatorship".

From Monday all Austrians, regardless of vaccination status, are required to stay at home except for essential reasons such as food shopping, exercise, religious services and medical appointments.

"This decision does not come easily, none of us enjoys bringing in measures that limit freedoms," said chancellor Alexander Schallenberg. The measures agreed with regional leaders on Friday were necessary, he said, because "too many among us have acted without enough solidarity".


Just 65 per cent of Austrians are fully vaccinated, according to official data. The new measures, to be reviewed after 10 days, impose fines of between €500 and €1,450 for those who violate the lockdown or refuse to comply with checks.

Mr Schallenberg of the centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP) and his Green coalition partner said a concentrated vaccination push was the only way to break the Covid-19 vicious circle.

Without naming the FPÖ, his party’s former coalition partner, Mr Schallenberg said “campaigns of political forces in this country” had led to “overflowing intensive care wards and enormous human suffering”.

The restrictions triggered huge reaction on Friday: while most opposition parties attacked the ÖVP for acting so late, FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl said he would challenge the constitutionality of measures from Austria’s “government of liars and losers”. He will not attend Saturday’s march, likely to be the largest since the pandemic began, after testing positive for Covid-19.

Austrian Cancer Society president Prof Paul Sevelda attacked the government’s response as “cowardly” and two weeks too late. Austria is now facing the “biggest-ever wave” of Covid cases in the next two weeks, he told ORF radio, forcing hospitals to postpone serious cancer operations to free up beds.

On Friday, Austria registered a record 15,000 new daily cases, pushing its seven-day incidence rate up to 1,050 cases per 100,000 of population, compared with 614 in Ireland.

Austria’s national infections database has ceased registering negative Covid test results in a bid to stop the system from collapsing.


Across the border, Germany has a national incidence rate of 337 but health officials say the real level of infection is at least double that.

Germany’s 16 federal states backed tighter rules on Friday that effectively exclude unvaccinated people from restaurants, sport and cultural venues and require them to test before using public transport. But health experts say that, with widespread checks impossible, it is all but inevitable that Germany will follow Austria into a tighter lockdown.

“It’s time to end this laissez-faire attitude, a rule that is not enforced makes no sense,” said Prof Lothar Wieler of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the country’s infectious diseases body.

On Friday the RKI put Ireland back on its virus hotspot list, along with Belgium and the Netherlands, requiring arrivals to produce a negative test or proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19.

Germany’s southern state of Bavaria, with an incidence rate twice the national average, cancelled all Christmas markets on Friday, including the historic Nuremberg market. It imposed “de facto” lockdowns in eight counties the seven-day incidence rate has topped 1,000, meaning only childcare, schools and essential shops will be allowed open.

Announcing the move, Bavarian state leader Markus Söder argued that only a vaccination mandate – until now a taboo in Germany – would break the pandemic’s “infinite loop”.

Saxony has signalled it will impose a state-wide lockdown light on Monday, cancelling Christmas markets in Dresden and other cities. Some 68 per cent of Germans are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in western Europe alongside Austria.

Further north in Denmark, infection rates are back to December 2020 levels despite a 78 per cent vaccination rate. Next week parliament will pass a new law requiring public sector workers to register their vaccination status.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin