ROME – Austria on Friday became the first Western democracy to announce that it would impose Covid vaccination on its entire adult population as it prepared for a nationwide lockdown from Monday.
Austria’s extraordinary measure, which just days ago split off from the rest of Europe by introducing a lockdown for the unvaccinated, which is causing a wave of infections, made another alarming statement on the severity of the fourth wave of the virus in Europe, now the epicenter of the pandemic.
But it has also shown that increasingly desperate governments are losing patience with vaccine skeptics and shifting from voluntary to mandatory measures to promote vaccinations and fend off a virus that shows no signs of declining, shaking global markets at the prospect that still timid economic recoveries will be undone.
Some European countries, including Germany, which once seemed to be a model for handling the virus, are now facing their worst levels of infections in almost two years since the start of the pandemic. The surge, according to health officials, is due to a stubborn resistance to getting vaccinated in deep layers of the population, the cold pushing people inside, a loosening of restrictions and possibly a decrease in immunity. among people previously vaccinated.
“For a long time – perhaps too long – I and others assumed that it must be possible to convince Austrians to be vaccinated voluntarily,” Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said on Friday. “So we made a very difficult decision to introduce a national vaccine mandate.”
With its latest decision, Austria has clearly outstripped other European countries which have reached, but not crossed, a threshold that once seemed unthinkable. The announcement prompted an immediate threat of violent protest over the weekend from leaders of the far-right anti-vaccine movements and the Freedom Party, who compared the government’s latest terms to those of a dictatorship. .
Many European countries have already instituted warrants in all cases except name – requiring strict health passes as proof of vaccination, recovery from infection or a negative test to participate in most social functions , travel or go to work. Many are already requiring children to be immunized against measles and other illnesses in order to attend school.
The notion of requiring the vaccination of adults against Covid was a line that Europe had seemed reluctant to cross, however, with leaders often pitting their respect for civil liberties against authoritarian-style countries.
But just as blockages have become a reality, vaccination mandates are becoming more and more plausible. German lawmakers in parliament voted on Thursday to force unvaccinated people to travel to work or use public transport to provide daily test results. The country’s vaccination rate among adults is around 79 percent, one of the lowest in Western Europe.
Jens Spahn, Germany’s acting health minister, was asked on Friday whether a general lockdown was possible for the country. “We are in a position where nothing should be excluded,” he said.
The specter of a foreclosure in Germany, Europe’s largest economy, has rocked European markets hungry for economic recovery and sales during Christmas shopping season.
Austria’s new vaccination mandate will come into effect in February, in the hope that as many people as possible will be motivated to sign up for their initial vaccinations, but also for boosters, said Austria’s Minister of Health. Health, Wolfgang Mückstein.
It also gave leaders time to formalize legal guidelines for the mandate, he said, adding that there would be exceptions for people who cannot be vaccinated.
The Health Ministry said Friday’s announcement was only the first step in developing a law that would establish the mandate, a process that would involve civil society and scrutiny. Details of how the law would be enforced and enforced would not be available until the process was completed, he said.
The health minister said the government was confident that a law could be crafted within the confines of the constitution, citing a previous national mandate for smallpox that was passed in 1948.
The measures appeared designed to save another Christmas and ski season in jeopardy.
Roberto Burioni, a leading Italian virologist at San Raffaele University in Milan, said the explanation for the outbreak in Austria was “very simple: lower vaccination rates and fewer measures and that is a time of year when respiratory viruses are spread “. He called the refusal of so many people in Austria to be vaccinated “really disappointing”.
The Austrian Chancellor said the lockdown, one of the first since spring, will be assessed after 10 days and will not extend beyond December 13, to ensure people can celebrate Christmas and shops do not would not lose holiday sales. . But the country’s Minister of the Economy was already developing a compensation plan for certain companies.
Austria has registered 15,809 new cases of coronavirus in the past 24 hours, according to figures released on Friday, straining the country’s health system, which has reached its limit. So far there was no indication of a new variant causing the infections. Instead, the virus had found room to circulate among the unvaccinated in the country.
The unvaccinated had given the virus, which seemed to be fleetingly repelled, a foothold from which to spread across the continent, epidemiologists said.
Low vaccination rates in Eastern Europe, such as Romania and Bulgaria, have had dire consequences, with hospitalization rates as high as at any time since the outbreak of the virus.
Italy, which shares a border with Austria, attributed a spike in cases in its northern regions to contagion from the north. These regions of northern Italy have in recent days called on the national government to tighten restrictions on the unvaccinated, including a more robust health pass.
The current Italian health pass, known as the Green Pass, was until recently the strictest measure in Europe and was a prerequisite for work. It requires either a vaccination, a bi-daily swab, or a recent recovery from Covid.
In recent weeks, regional presidents have launched proposals to apply any other restrictions exclusively to the unvaccinated.
Italian government officials have said that so far these proposals are not being seriously considered, but that medical professionals and caregivers are likely to be reminded.
The government argued that the country’s first bold actions, after vigorous debate, helped produce high vaccination rates that have protected it for the time being and allowed it to avoid measures like Austria’s. .
But Alberto Cirio, the president of the northern Piedmont region, said that in order to protect citizens who have been vaccinated, have listened to science and have done their public duty, measures should focus on punishing the unvaccinated. .
He said lockdowns have proven to be effective tools, but told Italian TV on Friday that the question was, “Who should we arrest? He said the answer was clearly the unvaccinated.
In Greece, where infections have increased, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Thursday announced additional restrictions for the country’s unvaccinated population.
From next Monday, access to more indoor spaces will be limited to those vaccinated, he said in a televised address. Proof of a negative test will no longer be enough for unvaccinated people to enter cinemas, theaters, museums and gymnasiums.
France required people to present vaccination certificates to enter public places such as theaters or museums and expanded the rule in August to include restaurants and long-distance trains. The Czech Republic, which has recorded the highest number of cases since the start of the pandemic, will ban people without a vaccination card or proof of a previous Covid infection from its restaurants, bars or hairdressers on Monday.
On Friday, the governor of Saxony, the hardest-hit state in Germany during the latest virus outbreak, announced new restrictions from Monday, including a ban on certain larger events and gatherings, regardless of how or the vaccination status of those present. Governor Michael Kretschmer said state lawmakers would approve the measures later on Friday.
The level of politicization around Covid vaccines, which some far-right and populist groups have vehemently opposed, and a mistrust of the novelty of vaccines have fueled anti-vaccine skepticism.
Mr Schallenberg, the Austrian Chancellor, specifically called on parties that have rescued such skepticism, apparently referring to the far-right Freedom Party, which has already called for demonstrations on Saturday to protest the new measure.
“We have too many political forces in this country fighting vehemently and massively against this,” he said. “It’s irresponsible. It is an attack on our health care system. Spurred on by these anti-vaccines and fake news, too many of us have not been vaccinated. The consequence is overcrowded intensive care stations and enormous human suffering. No one can want that.
He added: “For a long time it was a political consensus that we didn’t want a vaccine mandate, but we have to be realistic.”
Jason horowitz brought back from Rome, and Melissa Eddy from Berlin. Christopher F. Schuetze contributed to reports from Berlin and Elian Peltier from Brussels.