Austria Plans to Make COVID Vaccines Mandatory Next Year as Nation Enters Fourth Lockdown

Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg vowed to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory by February 1 to boost one of the lowest inoculation rates in western Europe, the Associated Press reported.

The country entered its fourth lockdown of the pandemic on Monday after the average daily deaths from the virus tripled in recent weeks and intensive care units in the more severely affected states started to reach capacity.

While details of Schallenberg's mandate have yet to be announced, experts have theorized that only certain age groups or employees may be subject to the requirement. Italy has sought to increase vaccinations among its own population by requiring workers to show health passes, which can be obtained by showing proof of vaccination, a recent negative test or evidence of recent recovery from the virus, in order to enter their places of employment, AP reported.

Of Austria's population of 8.9 million people, roughly 66 percent are vaccinated as a smaller but expressive minority of residents refuse to get the shots. The new lockdown restrictions allow people to leave their homes only for specific reasons like grocery shopping and exercising. Though parents were asked to keep their children home when possible, kindergartens and schools are remaining open, according to AP.

Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein said that the lockdown was meant to reduce rising infections and the number of patients in intensive care, but also to provide relief "to the people who work in this sector, the nurses and doctors who cannot take it anymore."

"It is a situation where we have to react now. The only way is with a lockdown, a relatively hard method, to lower the numbers with a wooden hammer,'' Mueckstein said while talking to national broadcaster ORF on Sunday night.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Austria Enters Lockdown
Austria went into a nationwide lockdown early Monday to combat soaring coronavirus infections, a step being closely watched by other European governments struggling with national outbreaks that are straining health care systems. Above, a woman pushes a baby stroller in Vienna, Austria, on November 22, 2021. Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo

This was not the draconian lockdown of the pandemic's dawn in 2020, when movements were strictly monitored and discouraged. Police cars circulated, in keeping with government promises to step up controls, but no spot checks were being made.

"I am particularly annoyed by the lockdown,'' said Georg Huber, a lawyer on his way to the office. "One should have done more research in, I don't know, summer? One should have implemented a mandatory vaccination in the summer, when it turned out it would not be enough to hope that people get there without any coercion. I think the government just overslept."

The renewed restrictions will be in place for at least 10 days, but are likely to be extended for a further 10, after which the government has indicated plans to open up so Austrians can celebrate Christmas normally. Restrictions, however, will remain for the unvaccinated.

Political analysts say the government did not effectively communicate the necessity of the vaccinations early enough, and that many Austrians did not take the campaign seriously enough after former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz declared the pandemic "over'' last summer. Kurz was forced out in a corruption scandal last month, replaced by his foreign minister, Schallenberg, who inside of a week expanded the controversial lockdown on the unvaccinated to a lockdown for everyone.

On the eve of Austria's latest lockdown, people flocked to Christmas markets for one last night of public socializing, and many spent the weekend getting a leg up on holiday shopping before stores closed. The Austrian Trade Association said sales were up 15 percent on Saturday, when lines formed to take advantage of "Black Friday" deals, compared with the same day in 2019, before the pandemic.

But many feared the last-minute boost would not be enough to salvage the season for businesses that rely on the holiday season.

Sophie Souffle, who sells upcycled jewelry at markets all year round, said she makes most of her money over the six-week Christmas market period. Any promised help from the government will be enough to get by, she said, "but it won't be enough to invest for future business."

She looked around as people trawled stands, eyeing wares more than buying them, and gathering in small groups to enjoy the company of others before gatherings were restricted. She sensed more desperation than holiday spirit.

"The mood is pre-apocalyptic,'' she said.

Austrian COVID Vaccine Requirement
Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg has vowed to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory by February 1 to boost one of the lowest inoculation rates in western Europe. Above, a staff member at the hospital Favoriten receives an injection with a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in Vienna, Austria, on December 27, 2020. Ronald Zak/AP Photo