VIENNA - Austria announced a new national lockdown and a plan to mandate vaccinations as coronavirus infections hit a record high Friday, forcing the government to walk back promises that such blanket shutdowns were a thing of the past.
Imposing a mandate would give Austria one of the world’s most stringent vaccine requirements. Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said those who didn’t comply would likely be fined but gave no other details.
The moves come as vaccinations in Austria have plateaued at one of the lowest rates in Western Europe and as hospitals in heavily hit states have warned that their intensive care units are reaching capacity.
But earlier this month, Schallenberg indicated a full lockdown would not be needed and instead imposed the restrictions only on those not vaccinated.
The lockdown will start Monday and initially will last for 10 days, when it will be reevaluated, Schallenberg said. Starting Feb. 1, the country will also make vaccinations mandatory — though the chancellor gave few details about what that meant or how it would work.
"Increasing the vaccination rate — and I think we’re all in agreement on this — is our only way to break out of this vicious cycle of viral waves and lockdown discussions for good," Schallenberg said. "We don’t want a fifth wave, we don’t want a sixth and seventh wave."
A sign displays rules for visitors of the christmas market amid the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic in Salzburg, on November 19, 2021. - Austria will impose a lockdown for all and make vaccinations mandatory, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg ann
Austria is among several western European countries where infections are rising rapidly and where there are concerns that vaccination rates, while relatively high, are insufficient to hold off a winter surge at hospitals. Average of daily cases have doubled in the past two weeks in Austria, while average daily deaths have nearly tripled — though fatalities remain well below the highs of last winter. And 13 U.S. states are already seeing higher deaths per 100,000 people than Austria.
Not quite 66% of Austria’s 8.9 million are fully vaccinated, according to government figures. It has tried various measures to boost that further. This summer, Austria introduced a "green pass" — which shows proof of vaccination, recovery from COVID-19 or a negative test result and was required to enter restaurants and attend cultural events.
"For a long time the political consensus was that we don’t want a vaccine mandate in this country," Schallenberg said. "But we have to look reality in the eye. For a long time, maybe too long, me and others thought that it must be possible to convince people in Austria, to convince them to get vaccinated voluntarily."
The U.S. government is moving forward with a requirement for mandatory vaccines or regular testing for every worker in the country at businesses with more than 100 employees. Republicans vehemently oppose the requirement and have gone to court to block the measure. In addition, numerous corporations and governments across the country have imposed their own vaccine requirements, in many cases accomplishing more than 95% compliance.
When the lockdown takes effect early next Monday, restaurants, Christmas markets and most stores will close, and cultural events will be canceled. People will be able to leave their homes only for certain reasons, including buying groceries, going to the doctor or exercising.
Wolfgang Mueckstein, the country’s health minister, said that kindergartens and schools would remain open for those who needed them, but all parents were asked to keep their children at home if possible.
The latest lockdown is the fourth since the pandemic began and comes as Austria has struggled without success to stop spiraling case numbers. On Friday, the country reported 15,809 new infections, an all-time high.
For the past seven days, the country has reported more than 10,000 new infection cases daily.
Austria’s intensive care doctors welcomed the government’s decision, warning that it was only a matter of time before their wards are swamped.
"The record infection figures that we have now experienced day after day will only be reflected in normal and intensive care units with a time lag. It really is high time for a full stop," Walter Hasibeder, the president of the Society for Anesthesiology, Resuscitation and Intensive Care Medicine, told Austrian news agency APA.
The situation is especially dire in the regions of Salzburg and Upper Austria, which have been particularly hard hit by the rising case numbers. In Salzburg, for example, the seven-day rate of new infections is nearly twice the national average.
Hospitals in both states have warned that their ICUs are reaching capacity, and in Salzburg they have begun discussing potentially only taking the worst cases.
Mueckstein, the health minister, said many factors contributed to the current situation, including Austria’s lower-than-expected vaccination rate and the seasonal impact of the virus. But he also apologized for state and federal leaders’ initial reluctance to implement stronger measures.
"Unfortunately, even we as the federal government have fallen short of our standards in some areas," he said. "I want to apologize for that."
After 10 days, the lockdown’s effects will be assessed. If virus cases have not gone down sufficiently, it can be extended to a maximum of 20 days. In addition, booster shots are now available to all vaccinated people starting four months after their second dose.
Government officials had long promised that vaccinated people would no longer face lockdown restrictions: Over the summer, then-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz declared the pandemic "over" for those who had received the vaccine. But as virus cases continued to skyrocket, the government said it had no choice but to extend it to everyone.
"This is very painful," Schallenberg said.