Austria is days away from ordering millions of unvaccinated people to stay at home, its chancellor has said, in a rare move that underscores the increasing exasperation of European leaders towards those who have not yet been inoculated against Covid-19.
Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg told reporters on Friday that the government should give the “green light” for the move this weekend.
“The aim is clear: we want on Sunday to give the green light for a nationwide lockdown for the unvaccinated,” Schallenberg said at a news conference in Innsbruck.
He had earlier called the country’s vaccination rate “shamefully low,” and hinted that the measure would be triggered within days. “In other states that rate is a lot higher – it is shameful as we have enough vaccines available,” Schallenberg said at a separate press conference on Thursday.
His warning came as a wave of Covid-19 infections sweeps central Europe. A three-week partial lockdown was announced in the Netherlands on Friday evening, Reuters reported, with health officials recording a rapid rise in cases there.
“Tonight we are bringing a very unpleasant message with very unpleasant and far-reaching measures,” Dutch caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in a televised address, ordering restaurants, supermarkets and non-essential retailers to close early and re-imposing social distancing measures. “The virus is everywhere and needs to be combated everywhere.”
Norway also announced new measures on Friday, while people in the German capital Berlin are preparing for fresh restrictions that come into place on Monday.
Under Austria’s plan, which was agreed in September, unvaccinated Austrians will face a stay-at-home order once 30% of intensive-care beds are occupied by Covid-19 patients. The current rate is 21%, according to the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety (AGES), and a surge in infections has pushed it up quickly.
Unvaccinated people are already excluded from entertainment venues, restaurants, hairdressers and other parts of public life in Austria. If the new measures come into place, the unvaccinated will be ordered to stay home except for a few limited reasons; the rules will be policed by officers carrying out spot checks on those who are out.
Around 65% of Austria’s population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, one of the lower rates in the European Union.
”It is clear that this winter will be uncomfortable for the unvaccinated,” Schallenberg warned on Thursday.
“A lockdown for the unvaccinated means one cannot leave one’s home unless one is going to work, shopping for essentials, stretching one’s legs – namely exactly what we all had to suffer through in 2020,” he said.
After Schallenberg’s announcement, the governor of the province of Upper Austria, in the northwest of the country, pushed to introduce the measure in his own province soon. The region is the country’s worst-affected area, with Stelzer calling the situation in his province “dramatic.”
Schallenberg’s tone encapsulated the frustration that several European governments have expressed towards unvaccinated pockets of society, as a wave of Covid-19 infections sweeps the region.
In neighboring Germany, ministers have ramped up their rhetoric towards those who are not inoculated. Its capital Berlin announced on Wednesday it will ban people who are not vaccinated from indoor dining, bars, gyms, hairdressers and cinemas from next week.
Vaccine rates vary across Europe but get steadily lower towards the east of the continent.
German officials meanwhile warned on Thursday the country remains in the grips of a ”very worrying” rise in Covid-19 cases and advised residents to “urgently to cancel or avoid larger events if possible, but also to reduce all other unnecessary contacts.”
According to the Robert Koch Institute, the country’s seven-day incidence rate has risen to 263.7 cases per 100,000 people – up from 169.9 cases reported a week ago.
Authorities in the country’s wealthiest state, Bavaria, declared a state of emergency on Thursday. ”The coronavirus pandemic threatens the lives and health of a large number of people throughout the state of Bavaria,” a statement published by the state premier’s office on Wednesday said, adding that ”in many hospitals, there are already no or only very few capacities available.”
The Norwegian government said on Friday it would reintroduce “a few more national measures” to “reduce the [Covid-19] infection” in the country. Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol said “unvaccinated people over the age of 18, who live with someone who is infected with the virus, will have a duty to get tested,” adding the obligation would apply from November 17.
The government will also advise municipalities to start testing unvaccinated healthcare workers twice a week, with a clear message that they must wear a mask, according to the statement.
For the second consecutive week, Europe was the only region in the world where cases and deaths were found to be climbing in the World Health Organization’s weekly global report.
Between November 1 and 7, there was a 1% increase in new weekly cases, the update said, and just over 3.1 million new cases were reported. The region also reported a 10% increase in new deaths over the last week.