(CN) — With coronavirus infections surging inside its borders and on the rise elsewhere in Europe, Austria on Monday became the first nation in the world to impose a lockdown on its unvaccinated citizens.
The Austrian parliament approved the lockdown on Sunday and the restrictions went into effect at midnight. The new lockdown comes amid growing worries across Europe about a new wave of infections with the approach of winter. Waning immunity from vaccines and large numbers of unvaccinated citizens are seen as driving the spike.
Neighboring Germany, Europe's largest economy and the European Union's most populous nation, is in crisis mode too as it watches infections soar and hit the highest rates since the pandemic started. It is now debating imposing its own lockdown on the unvaccinated and extending unpopular restrictions.
Over the weekend, the Netherlands went into a three-week partial lockdown with restaurants, bars and essential stores ordered to close at 8 p.m. and nonessential businesses, such as hairdressers, made to shut at 6 p.m. Norway, too, has reimposed restrictions.
In Austria, the new lockdown affects about 2 million people who have not been fully vaccinated. Austria is among several EU countries where inoculation rates have lagged despite easy access to vaccines. About 69% of Austria's 9 million inhabitants have received at least one dose and about 64% have been fully vaccinated.
Unvaccinated Austrians can only leave their homes for important purposes, such as to go to work, school, a doctor's office and to shop for essentials like food and medicine. The lockdown will remain in effect for 10 days, though it could be extended. Those found violating the restrictions face fines. Children under the age of 12 – and many as old as 15 – are exempt.
This unprecedented measure is meant to force Austrians to get inoculated and to protect the country's health care system.
“My aim is very clear: to get the unvaccinated to get vaccinated, not to lock up the unvaccinated,” Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg told ORF radio on Sunday, according to Reuters.
Austria has seen the number of infections climb quickly in the past month from about 2,400 new daily cases in mid-October to 11,889 on Monday. Deaths, too, are rising: A month ago, about 10 deaths a day were linked to the virus and that number has risen to about 30.
The lockdown for the unvaccinated has sparked protests and prompted warnings from some civil liberties groups. Critics questioned how such a lockdown could be enforced.
“Austria, and large parts of Europe, have fallen into a dangerous period of authoritarianism,” said Silkie Carlo, the head of the Big Brother Watch, a British civil liberties group, on Twitter. “There is no scientific or moral justification. This isn’t about health, it’s about power and control.”
Her group has challenged the use of facial recognition technology by police in the United Kingdom and it has sued Wales over a policy requiring people to show a health pass to gain entry into many public places like pubs and restaurants. Such passes are common in much of Europe.
In Germany, the rise in cases is an early test for coalition talks among three political parties seeking to form a new government following federal elections in September. The three parties in the coalition – the Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats – faced heavy criticism last week for proposing to ease restrictions despite the jump in infections.
Over the weekend, the three parties offered new plans and proposed stricter measures for the unvaccinated, such as forcing them to test negative before taking a bus or train.
Robert Habeck, a leader of the Greens, told ARD, a German news broadcaster, that the proposed rules amounted to a “lockdown for the unvaccinated.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.Follow @cainburdeau
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