Austrian chancellor Alexander Schellenberg has described his country's 30-day national lockdown, beginning on Monday, as a belated but necessary pushback against an intolerant minority.
Amid a spike in Covid-19 infections in Austria, around 40,000 people protested on Saturday in Vienna against the looming lockdown and vaccination mandate – many without masks or distancing.
Similar demonstrations against restrictions took place over the weekend in Italy, Switzerland, Croatia and the Netherlands. Rotterdam police opened fire on protesters and three people were hospitalised after a march turned violent.
By comparison, the Vienna march was largely peaceful with 400 breaches of public health restrictions registered, six arrests, two lightly injured police officers and one attack on a journalist.
Vienna police chief Franz Eigner expressed relief at the low levels of violence, but said 1,300 officers on the streets reported "high levels of aggression" from marchers that included far-right extremists and anti-vaccination protesters. One marcher tried to steal an officer's weapon, the police chief said, while another police officer was sprayed with an "unknown fluid".
Human rights groups noted large numbers of yellow stars, with anti-vaccination people likening themselves to Nazi-era Jews. Many marchers chanted “freedom” and “resistance” ahead of Europe’s first renewed shutdown of all but essential retail and services.
Interior minister Karl Nehmanner has warned of an "unacceptable scale of radicalisation", citing death threats he and Chancellor Schellenberg had received over the lockdown. Plans to make Covid-19 vaccines mandatory from February, meanwhile, had seen them compared to the notorious Nazi death camp doctor Josef Mengele.
With 12,000 dead to date and around 300 people dying weekly, Austria’s infection rate has tripled in the last month.
Chancellor Schellenberg has apologised for having to impose a drastic fourth-wave lockdown on the entire population. On Sunday he framed it as an avant garde pushback against the unvaccinated third of the population – an approach he predicted many other European countries will soon be forced to follow.
“Austria is prepared to break new ground when it comes to breaking out of this pandemic,” he told Austria’s Krone tabloid, citing the Austrian-British philosopher Sir Karl Popper’s remark that “you cannot practice tolerance with the intolerant, otherwise tolerance dies”.
Like many politicians, experts and journalists, the Austrian chancellor said he believed it was necessary – and possible – to convince vaccine sceptics of the need to get their jab. He hoped it was still possible to reach some people through argument and tighter restrictions.
“Now we have to admit that we have only reached two-thirds of the population,” he said. “As a politician I want to find common solutions. But when a third of society doesn’t play along then we have to reach for counter-measures.”
Saturday’s anti-Covid demonstration saw crowds of protesters squeezed into Vienna’s historic city centre alongside crowds on pre-lockdown shopping sprees.
Some 1,300 police were on deployed to oversee the march, co-organised by the populist opposition Freedom Party (FPÖ).
From his Covid home quarantine, FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl sent a video message praising people for joining a "pushback against a totalitarian danger".
Austrian authorities have promised to review the lockdown in 10 days but until then only essential shops are allowed open. Austrian schools remain open for those who need them for childcare, but parents who can home school are being asked to do so.
As Germany and other central European countries tighten up restrictions today (Monday), a leading vaccine researcher has said people may have to get use to annual Covid-19 boosters, similar to flu jabs.
Dr Ugur Sahin, co-owner of BioNTech, said new research indicates the efficacy of his company's vaccine, which is distributed by Pfizer, begins to wane from four months, though still offers considerable protection from the virus after nine months.
“A booster protects the vaccinated person very well against illness – it also helps to prevent further chains of infection,” said Dr Sahin to Germany’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
Back in Vienna, Austria’s retailers’ association expressed thanks for Saturday’s 15 per cent surge in sales, pushed by discounts of up to 50 per cent on gift items and Christmas decorations.
But the retail association said a one-day surge could not make up for the looming “vale of tears” for the industry at the start of the crucial shopping season.