Austria to vaccine skeptics: Get the jab, or you’ll be locked down at home

November 12, 2021, 3:35 PM UTC

The Austrian government is putting the unvaccinated on notice: Stay home—or else.

On Friday, the centrist government announced it will begin restricting the movement of those who have not yet received COVID-19 vaccines in two of the hardest-hit regions. If the case numbers don’t improve, it may even extend the lockdown of the unvaccinated across the country as early as next week, amid the worst outbreak of the virus in central Europe since the start of the pandemic.

The new measures come as the continent faces rocketing numbers of COVID-19 infections—now accounting for the most new cases in the world, according to the World Health Organization. Berenberg Bank chief economist Holger Schmieding argued in an investor note on Friday that “Europe is experiencing mostly a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” On a positive note, those economies with higher inoculation rates should make it through winter “without plunging back into another economic crisis.” 

Austria’s Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein announced that starting Monday new restrictions on movement will placed on the unvaccinated who reside in two federal states bordering on Germany. That this might only be the beginning became clearer the longer he spoke.

“The COVID situation in Austria is deeply concerning,” he warned in a press briefing, adding intensive care hospital beds were starting to run out. “The numbers are rising rapidly, in particular in Salzburg and Upper Austria, but also in other regions as well. So we will need to take further actions.” 

The government will convene virtually on Sunday with the premiers of all nine federal states to discuss the prospect of nationwide restrictions in movement for the country’s vaccine refuseniks. Pressed repeatedly by reporters, Mückstein intimated there’s political consensus to expand the measure from border to border.

The government will then hold a Sunday evening meeting of Parliament’s executive committee, a prerequisite to pass the legal framework for a lockdown across all of Austria, where only 65% of the population has been vaccinated.

Asked about concerns by police over how to concretely enforce a lockdown, Mückstein, who also introduced a mandate for health care professionals, said he expected most people to honor the lockdown.

“We have speed limits in front of schools because it’s sensible, even if you cannot enforce each and every one,” he said.

Growing support for mandates

Neighboring Germany, meanwhile, reported over 50,000 new COVID cases in one day, a new record. 

“Of these roughly 3,000 will eventually have to be treated in a hospital, at least 350 will end up in the intensive care ward, and a minimum of 200 will die,” Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute, told reporters on Friday.

Three of the four German municipalities with seven-day incidence rates over 1,000 incidentally border Austria. 

“The fourth wave is hitting us with full force, the faster and higher it piles up the harder it is to get it under control,” said Wieler.

As a result, German health authorities, including the RKI, are considering more stringent measures, including whether to recommend that fully vaccinated people in contact with an infected individual need to quarantine.

In the meantime, support in the German population has turned against anti-vaxxers, with the latest poll on Tuesday from broadcaster RTL suggesting a majority of the population support for the first time a general vaccine mandate.

Asked on Friday whether the government should consider one, Jens Spahn, health minister in the outgoing government, said such a simple solution might seem alluring in theory but would be difficult in practice.

“Let’s consider for a moment what that would mean, that the authorities—the police maybe—go door to door checking whether everyone in a household has been vaccinated?” he asked. “And when not, then they do what?”

To minimize the risk of those planning a winter holiday in Austria only to bring the virus back, Spahn is declaring the neighboring country a high-risk zone.

“Anyone not vaccinated or already recovered must go into quarantine upon return,” the caretaker minister told reporters. 

Red flags

Politics also plays a key role in the spread of the virus. The low vaccination rates in Germany have tracked closely with areas that most heavily supported the far-right political party the Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD. The party fished heavily for votes among the Querdenker anti-vax movement in the run-up to Germany’s September elections.

Meanwhile in France, months of sometimes violent anti-vax protests largely vanished in September. That was when new rules went into effect, forcing health workers and other civil servants to be fully vaccinated, or lose their jobs without pay. A similar effect is playing out in Italy where tough vaccine mandates have largely silenced the anti-vax demonstrators.

Still, on Wednesday night, French President Emmanuel Macron made his first televised pandemic appeal to the nation in four months—a signal of his deep concern—telling the French, “The fifth wave has started in Europe.” He said a 40% increase in France’s incidence rate in one week, and a rise in hospitalizations, were “red flags.” 

But Macron stressed that there would be no new lockdowns, and for good reason: More than 87% of people over 12 in France are fully vaccinated; vaccination rates are even higher there than in Italy and Spain. 

Instead, France is relying on beating the new coronavirus surge with a massive ramp-up in booster shots; strict indoor masking rules, including in schools; and rolling out vaccines for children under 12 within the next couple of months. Macron said people over 65 will need to show they have had a third jab, beginning Dec. 15, in order for their health passes to remain valid.

The passes, with QR codes, are required for indoor dining and for entering cinemas, museums, public transportation, and department stores. Macron also urged everyone over 50 to get booster shots beginning Dec. 1.

Appealing to the hard core of French who have resisted being vaccinated, Macron said, “I remind you that a vaccinated person is 11 times less likely to end up in the hospital in critical care.”

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