Austria will go into a nationwide lockdown on Monday and impose a coronavirus vaccination mandate in February, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said on Friday. It is the second such lockdown in a European nation since the spring after Latvia imposed similar restrictions last month, and the first national vaccine mandate to be announced in a Western democracy.
Austria has one of Europe’s highest national coronavirus infection rates, with 14,212 new cases registered in 24 hours on Thursday. And the Alpine country has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe, with just 66 percent of the population fully inoculated.
Recent restrictions on unvaccinated people have failed to bring the outbreak sufficiently under control, leading to the measures announced on Friday.
“For a long time — maybe too long — I and others assumed that it must be possible to convince people in Austria to voluntarily get vaccinated,” Mr. Schallenberg said on Friday. “We therefore have reached a very difficult decision to introduce a national vaccine mandate.”
The lockdown, reminiscent of those imposed across Europe last winter, before coronavirus vaccines were available, will last for at least 10 days and affect both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Schools, where students are tested regularly, will remain open, as will grocery stores.
“We have 21 months of the pandemic behind us, and we know we can only end this when we vaccinate enough people,” Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein said, adding that the lead-time of several months was needed to prepare for the mandate, including clarifying the legal situation.
In a sign of soaring worry over the latest fourth wave, Austria just days ago went a step further than most countries by announcing a lockdown on unvaccinated people. That will remain in place after the full lockdown expires, Mr. Schallenberg said.
Requiring people to be vaccinated against Covid starting on Feb. 1 broke new ground again, and Mr. Schallenberg defended the decision, citing the high number of Austrians who had refused to get a shot and the divisive political climate that supported them.
The far-right Freedom Party, whose leaders have proudly resisted the vaccines on grounds of personal liberties, called for a demonstration on Saturday against the new measures.
“For a long time, the political consensus has been that we do not want compulsory vaccinations in this country,” Mr. Schallenberg said when announcing the new measures. “But we have to face reality.”
A handful of countries in Asia have imposed mandatory vaccinations against coronavirus for their adult populations, including Indonesia, Micronesia and Turkmenistan.
But Austria’s new measures epitomize a painful reality that several European countries face: Current rates of vaccinations, albeit among the highest in the world, have not been enough to prevent a surge of infections as winter sets in and more people remain indoors.
Vaccinations have been shown to vastly limit infections — and the severity of infections, pushing moves by more countries to place restrictions on the unvaccinated in the hopes of encouraging them to get shots. Most inoculated people have been protected from hospitalization in intensive-care units and death from the virus.
Some in Austria said they found it hard to believe that a lockdown was coming at this stage of the pandemic.
“I will very happily go into lockdown in solidarity with caregivers and to save lives,” Sabine Beck, 51, an environmentalist living in Vienna. “But of course I’m angry. I consider it a complete failure that it comes so late.”