Austria re-enters Covid lockdown as Europe battles virus surge

People in Austria are not allowed to leave home except to go to work, shop for essentials and exercise, as the country returned to a Covid-19 lockdown on Monday morning.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets on Saturday to protest against the measures, some blaming the government for not doing more to avert the latest coronavirus wave crashing into Europe.

 

The Alpine nation is also imposing a sweeping vaccine mandate from 1 February – joining the Vatican as the only places in Europe with such a requirement.

Battling a resurgent pandemic almost two years since Covid-19 first emerged, several countries on the continent have reintroduced curbs, some banning unvaccinated people from venues including restaurants and bars.

But not since Covid jabs became widely available has an EU country had to re-enter a nationwide lockdown. Austria’s decision punctures earlier promises that tough virus restrictions would be a thing of the past.

Over the summer, then chancellor Sebastian Kurz had declared the pandemic “over”.

But plateauing inoculation rates, record case numbers and a spiralling death toll have forced the government to row back on such bold claims.

After taking office in October, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg criticised the “shamefully low” vaccine rate – 66% compared with France’s 75% – and banned unvaccinated people from public spaces.

When that proved ineffective at dampening the latest surge in infections, he announced a nationwide lockdown of 20 days, with an evaluation after 10 days.

Schools will remain open, although parents have been asked to keep their children at home if possible. Working remotely is also recommended.

Political analyst Thomas Hofer blamed Schallenberg for maintaining “the fiction” of a successfully contained pandemic for too long. “The government didn’t take the warnings of a next wave seriously,” he told AFP. “The chaos is evident.”

 

While many Austrians spent their weekend ahead of the stay-at-home order enjoying mulled wine or shopping, a crowd of 40,000 marched through Vienna decrying “dictatorship”.

Andreas Schneider, 31, from Belgium, who works as an economist in the Austrian capital, described the lockdown as a “tragedy”.

“I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this, especially now that we have the vaccine,” he said.

Called to rally by a far-right political party, some protesters wore a yellow star reading “not vaccinated”, mimicking the Star of David Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust, an act that was decried by politicians across Europe.

Alongside the “worried” citizens are others who “are becoming radicalised”, the interior minister, Karl Nehammer, said on Sunday, the same day about 6,000 people protested in the city of Linz.

Elsewhere in Europe – as infections soar and anti-Covid measures get stricter – frustrations have also erupted into demonstrations, with some marred by clashes with police.

Over 130 people have been arrested in the Netherlands over three days of unrest sparked by a Covid curfew, and in Brussels on Sunday, officers fired water cannon and teargas at a protest police said was attended by 35,000 people.

In Denmark, about 1,000 demonstrators protested against government plans to reinstate a Covid pass for civil servants.

“People want to live,” said one of the organisers of the Dutch protests, Joost Eras. “That’s why we’re here.

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