Austria has placed millions of people who are not yet fully vaccinated into lockdown to deal with a surge in Covid-19 infections that has put hospitals under intense strain.
Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg told a press conference that the decision was not taken “lightly”, but said it was “necessary” as the country battles one of the continent’s highest infection rates, with a seven-day incidence of 815 per 100,000 people.
It is the first country in the bloc to “reinstate the same restrictions on daily movements that applied during national lockdowns before vaccines were rolled out”, Reuters said, “though this time they only affect a minority of the population”.
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Introducing such “draconian rules” has raised concerns about the economy, the paper added, with some businesses reporting “a third fewer customers than usual”.
The measures will impact almost two million Austrian citizens aged 12 and older who are yet to be fully vaccinated. Of those, 356,000 people who have been vaccinated only once can be released from lockdown if they show a negative PCR test.
Fines of between €500 (£421) and €3,600 (£3,034) can be levied if a person is found to have breached the rules.
The Guardian reported that “a long list of exceptions has led critics to warn that the partial lockdown will be difficult to enforce”. Activities that allow unvaccinated people to leave lockdown include “essential shopping and outdoor physical exercise”, as well as to “satisfy their basic religious needs”.
Neighbouring Germany has also signalled that it may “reintroduce some restrictions on social gatherings and checks of vaccine status or test results on public transport in an attempt to curb rising infection rates”, the paper added.
The two-tier restrictions “spurred a jab surge”, said The Independent. But “frustration simmers” below the surface and “many unvaccinated Austrians are standing firm”.
More than 462,000 have come forward for jabs since the plan was announced, according to government data. But “a vocal minority” remain “unlikely to get jabbed amid doubts about the effectiveness of the new restrictions”, the paper added.
The plan has ushered in a lockdown “without precedent”, and will “likely spur more criticism” of the government “and embolden Austria’s anti-lockdown protestors”.
In France, where protests against mandatory vaccination have become a regular fixture, Le Monde also described the partial lockdown as “unprecedented”, adding that the number of patients being admitted to hospital “sounded the alarm bell”.
Centre-left newspaper Libération said the measures mean unvaccinated Austrians now “face a wall”, describing the options as “booster or confinement”.
Austria’s largest newspaper, Kronen Zeitung, said the measures were part of an effort to give “vaccinated people as much freedom as possible”, adding that encouraging vaccinations could mean “the winter season can be saved” amid surging cases.
The paper also quoted a nurse who described “corpses parked” in the corridors of medical facilities, adding that the situation in hospitals paints a “depressing picture”.
In a comment piece for German red-top Bild, Filipp Piatov said that measures are an effort to “intimidate” Austrians into getting vaccinated, adding that the country which has “long been considered a blueprint for Germany” is setting a “daunting example”.
Adding that young people are being “put under massive pressure to get vaccinated against a virus that is hardly dangerous for them”, Piatov argued that “this policy against children and young people must not” be introduced in neighbouring Germany.
Centre-right broadsheet Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung took a more measured tone, describing the measures as an “emergency brake” as “intensive care units threaten to reach their limits”. Adding that Germany “declared Austria a high-risk area” on Sunday, the paper said that the country’s infection “numbers speak a clear language”.
Deutsche Welle (DW) said that “thousands” of people took to the streets to “protest what they say is a vaccine mandate by the back door”. Protestors “chanted for their freedom outside of a fortified chancellery”, making their “hostility to the new lockdown heard”.
One woman told DW: “I am here today because I want to fight for my rights, these measures are absolutely discriminatory. Starting with the legal obligation for health workers to be vaccinated, which occupational group will be forced next?
“My body, our bodies, we have the right to decide.”
DW added that “not all are opposed”, with one man stating: “All unvaccinated people should get vaccinated because they don’t know what damage they could cause.”
The New York Times (NYT) reported that countries across Europe “are introducing increasingly targeted restrictions against the unvaccinated who are driving another wave of contagion”, adding that Austria has taken “the toughest line yet”.
Describing those who refuse the jab as “putting economic recoveries, public health and an eventual return to pre-pandemic freedoms at risk”, the paper said: “Austria’s step fit[ted] a pattern of governments across Europe passing rules to make life harder for the unvaccinated, with the goal of motivating people to get a shot.
“Taken together, the measures are a bleak and clear sign that a virus that however fleetingly seemed a piece of European history was still very much part of its present and future.”
Continuing that “the Austrian government’s next move may well be to tighten the screws”, the paper added that “one proposal is limits on going out at night that would also apply to the vaccinated”.
Comments made by Arne Duncan, who served as education secretary in the Obama administration, led Fox News’s coverage. She was “criticised on social media” after “praising” the measures in Austria, the broadcaster said, “raising questions on whether a similar policy could be embraced by other countries”.
Adding that Duncan “is not part of the Biden administration”, the broadcaster said the Austrian restrictions “raised new questions about the liberties that unvaccinated Americans will have as the virus continues to circulate into the winter months”.
There is no evidence that Joe Biden is considering similar measures.
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