Austria has imposed a lockdown for an estimated two million people not yet vaccinated against Covid-19 amid a surge in infections to record levels.
With about 65 per cent of Austria's population of nine million vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in western Europe and below the EU average of 67 per cent, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said the emergency measure was designed to "tighten the screws" on those refusing a vaccine.
With a record 13,000 infections daily at the weekend, Austria is now recording a seven-day average of more than 800 cases per 100,000 of population – nearly a three-fold jump in two weeks. By comparison neighbouring Germany has an incidence rate of 289.
“We are not taking this step lightly but, unfortunately, it is necessary,” said Mr Schallenberg at a press conference on Sunday, urging people to get their jab. “We must raise the vaccination rate, it is shamefully low . . . I don’t see why, because one-third hesitates, two-thirds’ freedom has been forfeited.”
The new rules confine unvaccinated people over 12 to their homes except for essential reasons: to buy food, exercise seek medical treatment or religious services.
Police spot checks
Health minister Wolfgang Mückstein said there will be a “tight net” of police spot checks in public, with lockdown measures to be reviewed in 10 days.
Breaches of the new rules will see fines of up to €1,450 per violation per person, and €3,600 for the business or premises.
The minister insisted there was no plan for a blanket lockdown, nor would Austria mandate vaccines for all – though plans are afoot to make vaccination a requirement to work in the health sector.
Amid demonstrations in Vienna against the measures yesterday the opposition populist Freedom Party (FPÖ), a vocal opponent of what it calls "experimental" vaccines, has vowed to challenge the constitutionality of the lockdown.
FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl has denounced the measures as a "Corona apartheid system". In an EU first, the city government of Vienna will begin offering vaccines for children aged five to 11 from Monday, ahead of official authorisation from the European Medicines Agency. More than 5,000 appointments have been booked already in the Austrian capital, according to local media reports.
The new lockdown is the second time in a week that Austria has tightened up its pandemic restrictions.
Last week the government imposed rules excluding unvaccinated people from restaurants, cultural venues and hairdressers. From Monday unvaccinated people will also be excluded from all stores except for outlets selling food and other daily needs.
So far, some 11,700 people infected with the virus have died in Austria. Last week’s tighter rules prompted a surge in jabs, and queues outside vaccination centres, in what locals dubbed “Schnitzelpanik”: fear of missing the chance to enjoy the national dish in a restaurant.
In a blow to Austria’s winter sport industry, Germany has declared its neighbour a virus risk area, requiring unvaccinated returnees to quarantine.
Netherlands has imposed a "lockdown-lite" with early closing for restaurants and shops and no spectators at sporting events.