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22 November 2021updated 23 Nov 2021 11:20am

Will winter Covid-19 lockdowns sweep across Europe?

More EU countries may follow Austria in making vaccination mandatory –but possibly not soon enough to avoid restrictions.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – Austria went into a full lockdown today (Monday 22 November), the first western European nation to reimpose a wholesale shutdown this winter. It comes weeks after the Netherlands, where cases are also rising, imposed a so-called lockdown-lite, forcing some venues to close early.

Across the continent, cases are surging. In western Europe, where vaccine coverage is generally good but with room for improvement, a rise in case numbers is translating into a higher death toll (though it remains far below its earlier, pre-vaccine peaks). By contrast, certain eastern European countries, where vaccination rates are lower, are suffering some of the worst death rates of the entire pandemic

Recent death rates in Romania and Bulgaria, the least vaccinated countries in the EU, were the highest they have been in the countries since the pandemic began, though they are now falling. (Alix examined the causes of vaccine hesitancy in south-eastern Europe earlier this month.)

As a consequence, lockdowns – long hoped to have been made redundant by vaccines – are returning to Europe.

What went wrong? Many countries were far too relaxed about their passable vaccine take-up during the summer, when background Covid case rates were low. Appeals from politicians failed to increase vaccination rates enough. Some governments, such as those of Germany and Austria, implemented restrictions on the unvaccinated too late and were too lax in enforcing them. 

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By contrast, countries such as Italy and France, which both implemented a stringently enforced vaccine passport system in the summer, are now benefiting from high immunisation rates. 

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Governments could have also brought in more creative solutions, trying the carrot as well as the stick. For example, could they have paid people to be vaccinated? If such a measure helped prevent more costly lockdowns by nudging immunisation rates up, it would have paid for itself many times over. 

Another danger is that Europe’s booster campaign has generally been slow. Many Europeans will soon be approaching six months since their second dose, the point at which growing evidence shows vaccine efficacy begins to wane. Yet the bloc has administered just six booster jabs per 100 people, compared to 44 in Israel, 22 in the UK and ten in the US.

The new restrictions have led to protests. In the Netherlands, several anti-lockdown protesters are in hospital after police fired live ammunition as demonstrations in the port city of Rotterdam turned violent. Protesters also took to the streets in Belgium, Austria and France over the weekend, demonstrating against shutdowns and vaccine passport schemes.

In addition to the lockdown, Austria’s government has said it will make vaccinations mandatory for the whole of the eligible population from February. Other countries may now take similar steps: a German minister said last week that obligatory vaccination is now “inevitable”. Yet such steps may not be in place swiftly enough to prevent more restrictions returning over the next few months. It could be another long winter.

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