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. Alexander Schallenberg, the Chancellor of Austria, stated that those who don’t adhere to vaccine requirements would be likely punished but did not give any other information.
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. The country will make mandatory vaccinations effective February 1. However, the chancellor did not give any details or explain how this 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.”
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. The average number of daily infections has doubled over the last two weeks in Austria. However, the average number of deaths per day has nearly tripled. But fatalities are still well below their peak 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. There have been many attempts to increase that number. 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. We have to see the truth in all its details. 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 strongly oppose this requirement, and they have taken the matter to court. 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. Only certain activities, such as shopping, exercising, or going to the doctor, will allow people to leave their home.
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 is time for a complete stop,” Walter Hasibeder, president of the Society for Anesthesiology, Resuscitation and Intensive Care Medicine, stated to 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. For example, in Salzburg, the rate of new infections within seven days is almost twice that of 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. He also expressed regret for the initial hesitation of federal and state leaders to take stronger steps.
“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. All vaccinated persons can now receive booster shots starting at four months following their first 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. The government decided to make the vaccine available to all, as more cases of virus emerged.
“This is very painful,” Schallenberg said.
Kirsten Grieshaber reported from Berlin, Philipp Jenne contributed from Vienna.