Austria is set to place millions of people not fully vaccinated against Covid-19 in lockdown in a matter of days while the German government said it planned to tighten restrictions, as infections in both countries soar to record highs and intensive care units face an increasing strain.
The provinces of Upper Austria and Salzburg are expected to introduce a lockdown for unvaccinated people from Monday next week after recommendations from medical experts, Austria’s health minister, Wolfgang Mückstein, said on Friday.
According to virologists, the aggressive spread of the disease is due to the spread of the Delta variant, coupled with a vaccination rate that remains too low. About 65% of Austria’s population are fully vaccinated against coronavirus, national statistics show, while 67% are vaccinated in Germany. Experts have repeatedly said a vaccination rate of at least 75% is necessary to be able to control the pandemic. Upper Austria records just under 60% of the total population as being vaccinated.
Both countries have a system of digital coronavirus passports, with most people carrying the proof in QR scans on mobile phones.
Just how a lockdown of unvaccinated people might be controlled remains hazy. Mückstein repeatedly failed to answer how this might be realistic. In theory, spot checks would be carried out by health authority personnel and police, with people required to show their vaccine passports when requested to do so.
Mückstein, a member of the Greens, said the lockdown would depend on “everyone pulling their weight … we all have a job to reduce our contacts”. He compared it to speed restrictions in the vicinity of schools. “If you have a 30 km/h [18.6 mph] speed limit you can’t control every vehicle but it’s a sensible rule and you depend on people abiding by that rule,” he said. Police union chiefs in Austria have already voiced their concerns about implementing the restrictions, amid fears of a public backlash.
Europe is once again “at the centre” of the pandemic with Covid cases at or surpassing record levels because of uneven vaccine coverage and a relaxation of preventive measures, the World Health Organization said last week, adding that 500,000 more deaths were forecast in the region by February.
Coronavirus deaths rose by 10% across the continent over the past week, making it the only world region where both Covid-19 cases and deaths are steadily increasing, according to a WHO report.
Germany’s outgoing health minister, Jens Spahn, said on Friday the country faced a “bitter December” if immediate measures were not taken, as he announced a return to free testing from Saturday and plans to introduce a so-called “2G-plus rule”, that would mean only people who had proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid could attend cultural or sporting events. They will also have to produce a negative test.
Germany recorded record infections for three days in a row this week. On Friday almost 49,000 cases were registered, with numbers doubling every week.
The government’s disease control agency, RKI, called for the cancellation of major events, just as the carnival season gets under way and the Christmas markets are about to open. Its head, Lothar Wieler, said the fourth wave was “rolling on full power” describing the situation as “five minutes past 12”.
In an effort to boost a flagging vaccine campaign, including encouraging top-up jabs, Spahn said doctors would receive €28 (£24) instead of €20 per jab, and a further bonus for jabs given at the weekend.
In the Netherlands, the government was expected to announce new lockdown measures on Friday after a record number of daily infections – 16,364 – were registered. According to media reports, there are plans for a three-week set of restrictions including a 7pm closing time for restaurants, pubs and non-essential shops and a restriction on the size of private gatherings in households to just four additional people.
Describing the situation in Upper Austria as “dramatic”, the regional governor, Thomas Stelzer, said a lockdown would be introduced “provided there is a legal green light from the federal government or the federal government creates the legal basis”.
The province has the lowest vaccination rate and the highest infection rate of Austria’s nine provinces, according to government data.
Austria has the lowest vaccination rate of any western European country apart from Liechtenstein, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
Those who are not vaccinated will have restrictions placed on their daily movements, including bans from restaurants, hotels, hairdressing salons and large public events.
“According to the incremental plan we actually have just days until we have to introduce the lockdown for unvaccinated people,” chancellor Alexander Schallenberg told a news conference on Thursday, adding that Austria’s vaccination rate was “shamefully low”.
Many Austrians are sceptical about vaccinations, a view encouraged by the far-right Freedom party, the third-biggest in parliament.
Schallenberg said on Thursday: “I don’t see why two-thirds should lose their freedom because one-third is dithering. For me, it is clear that there should be no lockdown for the vaccinated out of solidarity for the unvaccinated.
“A lockdown for the unvaccinated means one cannot leave one’s home unless one is going to work, shopping [for essentials], stretching one’s legs – namely, exactly what we all had to suffer through in 2020,” he said, referring to three national lockdowns last year.
The surge of coronavirus cases in Austria comes at a time when eastern European states, with the continent’s lowest vaccination rates, are experiencing some of the world’s highest daily death tolls per capita.
The number of new coronavirus infections in Austria has risen again to a record high, with 11,975 cases recorded within 24 hours, according to authorities.
The seven-day incidence per 100,000 inhabitants climbed to 751, three times the figure in neighbouring Germany.