Austria will enter a fourth national lockdown on Monday as Covid-19 cases continue to surge, becoming the first country in Western Europe to impose stringent measures this fall.
The country’s unvaccinated are already barred from leaving their homes for non-essential purposes.
Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg announced at a press conference on Friday that those lockdown measures would be extended to the entire country from Monday. The lockdown would last for a maximum of 20 days, Schallenberg said, but would initially be put in place for 10 days.
In a first for the region, he also announced that Covid vaccination would become mandatory in Austria from Feb. 1.
On Thursday, Austria recorded 15,145 new cases of Covid-19, setting a new record high for daily positive tests. Hospitalizations, deaths and the number of Covid patients in ICU are also rising fast in Austria.
Around 65% of Austria’s population has been fully vaccinated against the virus, which Schallenberg has previously described as “shamefully low.” The country has the second-lowest vaccination rate in Western Europe after Liechtenstein.
The Austrian Press Agency reported that government ministers were negotiating into the early hours of Friday to come up with action that could help curb Austria’s spiraling Covid crisis.
Implementing a countrywide lockdown marks a significant U-turn for Austria’s chancellor, who told reporters just last week that the two-thirds of the population who had accepted the immunization would not be forced to show “solidarity” with the unvaccinated.
The government’s original plan was to place unvaccinated people under lockdown once coronavirus patients occupied 30% of ICU beds in hospitals — a move that came into force on Monday.
However, the move had faced some criticism for being difficult to enforce, as unvaccinated people were still permitted some freedoms to go to work, do their grocery shopping and meet certain individuals outdoors.
Austrian police officers have been conducting random checks this week on people over the age of 12 — to whom the current lockdown applies if they are unvaccinated — to confirm individuals’ vaccine statuses.
While Schallenberg had previously rejected the notion of placing all Austrians under lockdown, some members of the country’s coalition government had been calling for tougher restrictions for the vaccinated as hospitals and ICU units came under increasing strain.
The government has been facing pushback from the country’s third-biggest party, the right-wing Freedom Party, which said Friday that “as of today, Austria is a dictatorship.”
The party has been openly skeptical about Covid vaccines, and had planned a demonstration in Vienna at the weekend against the lockdown measures imposed on the unvaccinated
Covid woes are being felt all over Europe as the fourth wave of the pandemic sweeps across the region, prompting many governments to tighten restrictions on their populations.
Germany and the Netherlands’ new daily case numbers smashed records on Thursday, while France reported numbers not seen since August.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced on Thursday that unvaccinated people in areas with high hospital admissions would be banned from certain venues. The Netherlands has introduced a partial lockdown.
Meanwhile, Belgium has mandated working from home and indoor mask use, the Czech Republic is set to limit unvaccinated people’s movement from next week, and Slovakia’s unvaccinated population will be placed under lockdown from Monday.
The euro was trading lower against the dollar on Friday at around $1.1290. The Vienna Stock Exchange was down 3.2% on Friday, putting it on track for its worst day in more than a year. It was also down 4.5% for the week, a weekly loss not seen on the Austrian index since October 2020.
Jessica Hinds, Europe economist at Capital Economics, said in a note on Friday that Austria’s lockdown plans also cast doubt over the outlook for the rest of the euro zone economy.
“The ‘full lockdown’ in Austria is a response to the rapid deterioration in the Covid situation there, and we estimate that it could knock around 1.5% off the country’s GDP in Q4,” she said.
“While on its own this would not make a big difference to euro-zone GDP, there is a clear risk that other larger economies, notably Germany, are forced to follow suit. Our euro-zone Q4 GDP growth forecast may well prove too optimistic and stagnation, or even contraction, is plausible.”
We don’t want a fifth wave. We don’t want a sixth and seventh wave. We don’t want to have this discussion next summer,” Schallenberg said.
The move comes only days after Austria took the step, unprecedented in Europe, of imposing lockdown measures for all those age 12 and older who are not fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
Under those measures, which came into force on November 15, the unvaccinated were ordered to stay at home except for a few limited reasons, with the rules policed by officers carrying out spot checks on those who were out and about.
Vaccinations are currently recommended for everyone aged 12 and above in Austria. On Monday, a pilot scheme to vaccinate children aged five to 11 got under way in Vienna, the national capital. (CNBC)