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15 November 2021

Will Austria’s lockdown for the unvaccinated work?

The unprecedented move is a last-ditch attempt to prevent the country’s healthcare system from being overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases.

By Liam Hoare

VIENNA – Those who declare the end of the pandemic are bound to be made fools of sooner or later. Over the summer, Austria’s conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) led by then-chancellor Sebastian Kurz blasted out advertising with slogans triumphantly declaring: “The pandemic has been mastered, the crisis has been fought: finally, we can spend time with one another.” Cut to the autumn, and Austria finds itself overwhelmed by its largest wave of the pandemic to date. Now, it is trying to break that wave with an unprecedented lockdown for the unvaccinated.

At midnight on 15 November, an estimated 1.6 million unvaccinated Austrian adults were placed under a stay-at-home order akin to those applied to the general population during Austria’s previous three national lockdowns. Those who cannot prove that they have been vaccinated against or have recently recovered from Covid-19 are now barred from leaving their homes except under limited circumstances: to buy groceries, go to work, exercise, or get a Covid test or vaccination. Children under 12 who cannot be vaccinated (an estimated 1 million people) are exempt, as are teenagers taking part in Covid-19 testing programmes at school.

It speaks to the speed with which the fourth wave has ripped through the unvaccinated population since summer’s end that this lockdown constitutes Austria’s second major Covid-related rule change in as many weeks. Previously, a Covid test certificate was enough to serve as a valid ticket of entry, but on 8 November, partial restrictions for the unvaccinated came into effect – dubbed a Schnitzellockdown, as the unvaccinated were barred from restaurants or cafés where they might order the totemic breaded cutlets (or indeed anything else). The “2G” rule (one “G” for geimpft, meaning vaccinated; the other for genesen, meaning recovered) shut the unjabbed out of many of Austria’s gastronomic, cultural and sporting institutions.

It would have taken two to three weeks for the effects of that 2G rule to show up in Austria’s active case numbers. Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg and Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein, however, felt they did not have a moment to lose. Between 23 September and 12 November, the number of daily new confirmed Covid-19 cases per million people shot up from 194.5 to 1,098.4. Over that same period, the share of the population fully vaccinated against Covid-19 barely increased from 59.6 per cent to 63.3 per cent, while the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital per million people more than doubled from 70.3 to 173.6. The time had come to tighten the screw.

Across Europe, the situation is rapidly deteriorating. Cases in Germany have hit record highs: without urgent action, state leaders warn another lockdown is imminent. Last week, the Netherlands became the first western European country to reintroduce restrictions, with a partial lockdown to last at least three weeks. In eastern Europe, particularly Romania and Bulgaria, the situation has never been worse.

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Moving from 2G to a lockdown flips the legal situation and the state’s approach to the unvaccinated on its head. A 2G rule tells the unvaccinated what they cannot do. It creates barriers to entry at certain venues, but an unvaccinated person could – in Austria at least – still travel by train from one end of the country to the other in order to attend their friend’s wedding (provided it has fewer than 25 guests), and have their Covid status unchecked.

2G is the approach France has taken, and German states including Bavaria are now following suit. A lockdown, however, tells the unvaccinated what they can do – and there isn’t much. It first confines them to their homes and then creates limited exemptions that allow them to be out among the vaccinated and recovered.

As of 15 November, any person in Austria can be stopped by police outside of their homes and asked to produce their vaccination certificate or certificate of recovery. Anyone found in violation of the new lockdown faces a fine of €1,450. A spokesperson for the police in Upper Austria – one of the states hardest hit by the fourth wave – told me they plan to enforce the new lockdown via “random checks” of people’s Covid-19 “green passes”, a task officers can perform using an app on their smartphones.

The national policy of placing districts hammered by Covid-19 under a cordon sanitaire having come to an end, there will be an extra 120 officers on the beat in Upper Austria. A police spokesperson in Vienna told me they would primarily carry out checks in places where people “come into close contact” with one another, like “public transport and shops”. That work – which will also include stopping vehicles for “routine checks where possible” – will be carried out both by regular officers and “specially assigned personnel”, such is the scale of the task at hand.

When Schallenberg announced the introduction of the 2G rule, he said he was not looking to divide Austrian society. Austrian society, however, is already divided between the vaccinated majority and a stubborn unvaccinated residuum. A new corona-sceptic party, the MFG, already polls regularly at 6 per cent: enough to potentially gain representation in the Austrian parliament.

Protests over the weekend attracted between 1,000 and 3,000 people in Vienna, Salzburg and Klagenfurt. The far-right Freedom Party, which has become even more corona-sceptic since Herbert Kickl became its leader in June, has plans for an even larger demonstration this coming Saturday (20 November). “We’ll fight against this [lockdown] with every parliamentary and judicial tool at our disposal,” Kickl warned on 14 November, describing the lockdown as a form of “vaccine apartheid”.

Austria’s lockdown for the unvaccinated is a last-ditch attempt to bring case numbers and intensive care admissions down and the vaccination rate up before its healthcare system becomes overwhelmed and collapses. Already, there are indications that the gravity of the situation is having an effect on the vaccination rate. On 12 November, 26,270 people received their first dose of a vaccine, compared with only 9,747 three weeks prior. More than two-thirds – 68.6 per cent (by 14 November) – of the population have now received at least one dose.

That still may not be enough. If locking down the unvaccinated does not work, there remains only one tool left in the government’s arsenal, one it has promised time and again never to use: a fourth national lockdown for everyone – vaccinated or not.

[See also: Why Sebastian Kurz will now be Austria’s “shadow chancellor”]

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This article appears in the 17 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy's last stand