Austria has announced a nationwide lockdown, travel restrictions, and forthcoming populationwide vaccine mandate—the first in the European Union.
Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg has said these extreme measures are regrettable but necessary to both contain a record surge in reported COVID-19 cases and encourage the one-third of Austrians who are unvaccinated to get the jab.
"There are too many political forces in this country, that have campaigned against [vaccination]. The consequences of this are overfilled intensive care stations and enormous human suffering," said Schallenberg, reports English-language Austrian news site The Local. "This decision does not come easily to us. None of us enjoys bringing in measures that put limits on freedom."
Austria reported 15,000 new COVID-19 cases yesterday, a record that's well above last year's winter peak of 9,262 daily reported cases, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering's dashboard. The country reported 55 COVID-19 deaths yesterday, which is about half the daily deaths reported during last year's winter peak.
This latest lockdown follows an order issued Monday that barred unvaccinated Austrians from public settings like restaurants, bars, and some retail stores. They were only allowed to leave the house for essential business like grocery shopping and medical appointments, or to go to work (provided they had a negative test result).
At the time, Schallenberg insisted that his aim was "very clearly to get the unvaccinated to get themselves vaccinated and not to lock down the vaccinated."
But according to The Local, local governments started to impose additional vaccine requirements and general lockdowns earlier this week, while the national politicians toyed with harsher countrywide measures.
Salzburg and Upper Austria are heading into another loxckdown next week.
Just waiting for the press conference to begin, it's delayed but we should hear from Salzburg's governor on details soon https://t.co/kFsTY63grn
— Catherine Edwards (@CJREdwards) November 18, 2021
The country's latest lockdown will close bars, restaurants, most retail stores, and other public settings like the country's famed Christmas markets. Essential businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies will remain open, as will schools, although students will be required to wear masks, says The Local. Students are also encouraged to switch to home learning if they can.
Tourist travel to the country is also now prohibited.
The government is still working out the legal and practical details of its nationwide vaccine mandate, which it plans to impose in February. The country's health minister has said it would be enforced with administrative fines.
COVID-19 interventions that apply to the vaccinated are often criticized for disincentivizing people from getting vaccinated at all. Why go get a shot you're already reluctant to take if you're still going to have to wear a mask inside?
That criticism doesn't neatly apply to Austria given that the country is now simply requiring people to be vaccinated—no incentives needed!
Nevertheless, the mandate is already provoking a political backlash from the country's right-wing Freedom Party. It's been critical of the country's previous lockdowns and is planning to protest the new restrictions this weekend, reports Reuters.
Taken together, the lockdown and general vaccine mandate are about as authoritarian a pandemic response as you could get absent government officials literally sealing people inside their homes. It's also an approach that's hopelessly contradictory.
Austrian government officials continue to assert that the only way to arrest this wave, and future ones, is to get everyone vaccinated. They are nevertheless requiring that even the vaccinated shelter in their homes now.
The only possible justification for that would be to lower overall COVID-19 transmission by preventing vaccinated, but infectious, people from spreading the disease to their unprotected countrymen. That was seemingly already accomplished by the earlier (still extreme) lockdown targeting the unvaccinated.
The government's lockdown is an incredibly paternalistic response. Those who have decided not to get vaccinated are generally not making a wise decision, but it's largely only themselves and other voluntarily unvaccinated people they are putting at risk of severe illness or death. Locking down the whole country to protect them is like taking all the cars off the road to save people who refuse to wear a seatbelt.
Austria's general lockdown is scheduled to last for 10 days and could be extended for as long as 20 days, reports the Associated Press. The lockdown restrictions for the unvaccinated could be extended for longer if deemed necessary.