(CN) — Faced with soaring coronavirus infections, Austria on Friday took the drastic steps of imposing a new nationwide lockdown and announced vaccination will become mandatory for the general population in February, a first for a Western nation.
These strict measures were announced by conservative Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg only five days after Austria took the unprecedented decision of imposing a lockdown on its unvaccinated citizens.
The new lockdown will start on Monday and last for up to 20 days, though it could be extended. People will be able to leave their homes only for essential reasons, such as work, food shopping and exercise. Schallenberg said the vaccine mandate will come into force on Feb. 1. Unvaccinated people could face fines and possibly even jail sentences. The chancellor said legal questions needed to be worked out.
“For a long time, the political consensus has been that we do not want compulsory vaccinations in this country,” Schallenberg said. “But we have to face reality.”
Austria's step toward mandatory vaccination could be the beginning of a trend in Europe. After Austria announced a lockdown for the unvaccinated, other European countries stepped up restrictions against people without vaccine certificates. Calls for mandatory vaccination are growing, but resistance is stiff. Austria's measures have sparked large protests and more are expected over the weekend.
Austria and other European countries – especially those in northern, central and eastern Europe – are in the midst of a new wave of Covid-19 infections and rising deaths as colder temperatures set in and people move indoors. On Friday, Austria reported a record 15,809 new cases and 48 more fatalities, bringing its total death toll to 11,951.
Germany too is seeing rising infections and its health minister is calling the situation a national emergency due to record numbers of cases with deaths rising to about 190 a day. In recent days, Germany has reported more than 60,000 new daily infections, by far the most in all of Europe, even more than Russia. Russia has been in the midst of a deadly wave since summer and it is reporting more than 1,230 deaths a day. In all, Russia has recorded 260,335 fatalities, the most in Europe and the fifth most in the world.
The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Poland and France are reporting tens of thousands of new infections too. Across Europe, though, deaths are far fewer than last winter when vaccines were unavailable. Vaccines have been shown to greatly reduce the risk of hospitalization and death.
In Austria and Germany, politicians are coming under fire for not imposing restrictions earlier on the unvaccinated and not pushing more people to get inoculated. Both countries lag behind some other European countries in vaccine rates, especially Italy and Spain, which were hit the hardest at the beginning of the pandemic.
In Austria, about 64% of the total population is fully inoculated and about 67% in Germany. However, about 80% of those 18 and older are vaccinated in Germany and about 74% of adults in Austria are fully vaccinated. By comparison, in Italy about 72% of the total population is vaccinated and 88% of adults are. In October, Italy made vaccination mandatory at all private and public work places.
This rise in cases in Europe – where vaccination rates are among the highest in the world – underscores just how difficult it is to contain the virus but it also feeds into anti-lockdown protests.
Austria's new measures were denounced by the country's large far-right party, the Freedom Party. Until 2019, the Freedom Party was part of a ruling coalition with Austria's main conservative party but a scandal involving its former leader caused that government to collapse. The Freedom Party is now a main opposition force against a government run by Schallenberg's center-right People's Party and the Greens.
Herbert Kickl, the party's leader and an anti-vaxxer blamed by many for convincing lots of Austrians to not get jabbed, likened Austria's new coronavirus measures to a “dictatorship.” He recently announced he had tested positive for Covid-19.
On social media, he said the government had crossed a “dark red line” by imposing a vaccine mandate and thrown “the federal constitution overboard.”
He posted video of Austrian police checking vaccination certificates in a clothing store and called for Austrians to protest on Saturday.
Kickl scoffed at promises made by then-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz during the summer that the pandemic was “over” for those who were vaccinated and that the inoculated would no longer face lockdown.
“This is very painful,” Schallenberg said.
But he seemed to point the finger at Kickl and other anti-vaxxers for causing Austria to go back into lockdown for a fourth time. He said “too many political forces, flimsy vaccination opponents and fake news” were behind Austria's low vaccination rates.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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