COVID-19 Pandemic

Austria announces COVID lockdown and vaccine mandate

Published : November 20, 2021 16:41 IST

Already Austria's unvaccinated were on lockdown but due to soaring case numbers, the country has ordered a full lockdown beginning Monday. Photo: Lisi Niesner/REUTERS

The lockdown starts on November 22 and compulsory vaccines are set to begin in February.

Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg announced a full lockdown in Austria at a press conference on November 19. In addition, vaccinations will be mandatory from February 1 of next year. That makes Austria the first European country to introduce such a measure. "We do not want a fifth wave," public broadcaster ORF quoted Schallenberg. "Nor do we want a sixth or seventh wave."

What are the details of the lockdown?

In order to curb the latest rise in infections, Austria's nine federal states agreed to impose nationwide restrictions starting on November 22. They are meeting with Schallenberg and Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein in Tyrol in the western part of the country. Travel to Austria for tourism purposes will not be possible during the time of the lockdown. From December 13 at the latest, the lockdown will be over for those vaccinated against the virus or recovered, Schallenberg said, adding that restrictions for the unvaccinated would remain in place. Schallenberg said, "This is very painful."

Austrians will not be able to leave their houses except for work, essential purchases like food and medicine and for exercise. Schools will not close but parents should keep their children at home, if they can. Previously, Austria had introduced a lockdown applicable solely to the unvaccinated but it seems it did not achieve the desired effect nor halt the need for a longer lockdown.

What is the COVID situation in Austria?

Austria, a country of 8.99 million, is currently experiencing a severe fourth wave of the pandemic with the seven-day incidence of new cases per 100,000 inhabitants standing at around 1,000, according to current data. Hospitals are running out of capacity to care for patients, especially in areas like Salzburg and Upper Austria, where incidence rates are hovering above 1,500.

Around two-thirds of Austria's population are fully vaccinated, making it one of the lowest rates in western Europe. Demand has increased in recent days after an initial lockdown just for the unvaccinated went into effect earlier this week. Also earlier in the week, Vienna became the first in the E.U. to begin vaccinating children aged five to 11.

As per the new rules, two-dose-vaccinations are valid for 9 months only after the second dose is administered, while previously they were valid for 12 months. After nine months, a booster shot is required to be considered fully vaccinated. Schallenberg placed the blame squarely on the unvaccinated, saying they were responsible for an "attack on the health system" and calling vaccines the "exit ticket" out of the pandemic.

FPÖ calls for demonstrations

In his speech, without naming names, Schallenberg made references to the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), which has contributed to vaccine skepticism in the country. The FPÖ polls at around 20 per cent and quickly lashed out at the new rules, saying Austria is on its way to becoming a "dictatorship." FPÖ boss Herbert Kickl, who is currently suffering from a coronavirus infection, called for demonstrations on November 20 in Vienna. Thousands are expected to participate in the protests. Police said they would make sure that the participants were adhering to health safety guidelines like wearing proper face coverings.

Tourism industry hit by new lockdown

The country's tourism industry has also criticized the new lockdown because of its potential impact during the ski season. The move will have a severe impact on the sector, said Robert Seeber of the Austrian Economic Chamber (WKÖ). It is, however, "inevitable" in view of the spiraling cases and severe burden on the health system, he added.

Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel said the government is planning to provide financial assistance to businesses hurt by the lockdown. "We know that the situation is challenging, especially coming right before the Christmas season, for merchants and for the rest of the economy," he said, noting that about 15 per cent of Austria's economy relies on tourism. The government is preparing a package worth €700 million ($794 million) to compensate businesses for lost sales, with a special €100-million fund for smaller businesses.

The Austrian lockdown also impacted European stock markets, with 4 per cent losses for oil prices later on November 19. Travel companies were especially hit, with British Airways shedding 6 per cent of its market value. Experts predicted that financial damage could increase if Germany and other European countries follow suit with full lockdowns.

sri, ar, jc/rt (dpa, Reuters, AFP)

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