Austria is extending a lockdown to its entire population, becoming the first EU country to take such a measure in the face of the COVID-19 resurgence.
The Alpine country is also the first EU nation to make vaccination mandatory, saying this will be implemented from February 1.
The new measures were announced by Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg on Friday morning after discussions with regional governors. “We have to look reality in the face,” he said at a news conference in the Tyrol.
Last Monday, Vienna announced a nationwide lockdown for the unvaccinated. That has now been extended to everyone as Austria battles to contain a fourth wave of the coronavirus.
“We do not want a fifth wave,” the chancellor said, as reported by public broadcaster ORF. “Nor do we want a sixth or seventh wave.”
Lockdown to begin on Monday
Schallenberg said the lockdown will start on Monday and initially last for 10 days. Most stores will close, and cultural events will be cancelled.
Austria’s health minister said that schools would remain open for those who needed to go there but all parents were asked to keep their children at home if possible.
Under the lockdown for the unvaccinated announced earlier this week, people 12 years and older are banned from going outside except for essential activities such as work, attending classes, essential shopping, or going for a walk.
After 10 days, the effects will be assessed and if virus cases have not gone down sufficiently, the lockdown can be extended to a maximum of 20 days.
The latest data shows COVID infections in Austria have soared in recent weeks. Daily case numbers have trebled in November to more than 15,000 on Thursday. The country’s per capita infection rate is the highest so far this year.
Hospitals have been overwhelmed with many new COVID-19 patients, and deaths have been rising again, too.
Vaccination compulsory from February 1
The chancellor also addressed the decision to make vaccinations against COVID-19 compulsory.
“Despite months of work on persuasion, we have not succeeded in convincing enough people to get vaccinated,” Schallenberg said on Friday, deploring the overload on intensive care units.
“Increasing the vaccination rate durably is the only way of getting out of this vicious circle,” he added, saying this was the “exit ticket” from the pandemic.
Just over 64% of Austria’s population of 8.9 million was listed as being fully vaccinated against COVID by November 19, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). This is well below the average for Western Europe, although the figure for the EU as a whole is 65.5%.
For now, vaccination appears to have kept fatalities down. In the week to November 14, there were 35 deaths per 1 million population.
At the peak of an outbreak late last year, that figure stood at 169.
“We have too many political forces in this country vehemently opposing” vaccination, the chancellor complained, denouncing an “attack against our health system”.
Austrian authorities said on November 17 that travellers would need to show a negative PCR test upon entering the country. Previously, results from the cheaper lateral flow tests were allowed.
Across Europe, the pandemic has been accelerating and several countries have announced more restrictions in recent days to contain rising cases.
Authorities in Germany decided on Thursday to target the unvaccinated, restricting their access to the workplace and public transport.
The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Greece have also announced similar measures in recent days.