Austria is to introduce a lockdown for unvaccinated people in two of Europe’s worst-hit coronavirus regions from Monday and could extend it across the country, the chancellor, Alexander Schallenberg, has said.
Millions of people not fully vaccinated against Covid in the regions of Upper Austria and Salzburg will be allowed to leave their homes only for reasons considered essential to life, such as going to work, grocery shopping or visiting the doctor, Schallenberg said – measures believed to be unprecedented in Europe.
The restrictions are in line with recommendations from medical experts and will be monitored through random checks that the health minister, Wolfgang Mückstein, compared to traffic controls.
Separately, the German government said it planned to tighten restrictions against unvaccinated people, as infections in both countries soared to record highs and intensive care units faced increasing strain.
Schallenberg said regional leaders meeting on Sunday would approve the plans, which could then be applied across the country, and that spot checks would be used to enforce the lockdown.
“Unvaccinated people will only be allowed to leave their flats to go to work, for food shopping or when they need to stretch their legs,” he said.
He added that the measures relied on people using their common sense, because blanket controls were not possible. “We don’t live in a police state and are not able – and nor do we want – to control every street corner,” he said.
According to virologists, the aggressive spread of Covid is owing to 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 say a vaccination rate of at least 75% is needed to control the pandemic. In Upper Austria, just under 60% of the population are vaccinated.
Both countries have a system of digital coronavirus passports, with most people carrying the proof in QR scans on mobile phones.
At an earlier press conference, Mückstein announced a vaccine mandate for all health workers, though he did not specify when it would come into force.
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. The police union in Austria has already voiced its concerns about implementing the restrictions, fearing a public backlash.
The World Health Organization said Europe was 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. It said 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 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 it reported almost 49,000 cases, 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 Christmas markets are about to open. RKI’s 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 a 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.
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. The chancellor said on Thursday that the 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.”
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 Germany.
Eastern European states have some of the continent’s lowest vaccination rates and are recording some of the world’s highest daily death rates per capita.