Austria awoke on Monday to its fourth national lockdown since the start of the pandemic. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Austria awoke on Monday to its fourth national lockdown since the start of the pandemic. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Austria awoke on Monday to its fourth national lockdown since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The Central European nation is about to become a testing ground for overcoming vaccine sceptics after imposing tough new restrictions to curb coronavirus infections that have quadrupled in a month.   

To mid-December, Austrians will only be allowed to leave home for work, essential shopping and exercise. Restrictions may last longer for the unvaccinated. 

Restaurants and most shops will be closed, along with Austria’s traditional Christmas markets selling mulled wine and spiked punch. Museums, gyms, symphony halls and operas closed as of Sunday night. Grocery and some food stores will remain open. 

The lockdown is meant to put a brake on infections before mandatory vaccinations kick in from February. That would be the first such policy in Europe, where governments have mostly kept inoculations voluntary. 

The government’s moves sparked furious protests in Vienna, where an estimated 40,000 people, led by the right-wing Freedom Party, took to the streets on Saturday. Banners and placards demanded “Freedom” and “Hands off our children.” 

Another protest in Linz — the capital of Upper Austria, which along with Salzburg currently has the highest seven-day Covid-19 rate in Europe — drew thousands more on Sunday. 

Pockets of violence were seen across Europe over the weekend, from Belfast to Zagreb, in response to various anti-Covid-19 measures taken by governments desperate to put the pandemic behind them. Police in Brussels turned water cannon on protesters to disperse an unruly crowd. 

Once the vaccine mandate is implemented, fines for Austrians unwilling to take a shot could reach €3,600 and €1,500 in the case of booster shots, according to minister for the constitution Karoline Edtstadler. Authorities will only impose the penalty if an offer for a vaccine appointment is rejected. 

“When people in a free and pluralistic society continuously ignore responsibility, it needs to become an obligation,” Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said in an interview with the Kurier newspaper published on Sunday.

Political stakes

Austria’s vaccine programme stalled after a fast start early in 2021. Short of 66% of people are fully inoculated, among the lowest rates in Western Europe.

Chancellor for less than two months, Schallenberg faces multiple difficulties in persuading vaccine skeptics and eventually navigating the country of about 9-million out of the pandemic. 

More may soon side with the Freedom Party and the recently-formed virus-sceptic MFG group, which is looking to capitalise on protest sentiment. 

The other challenge is political. 

While most parties have united behind the government’s policy, Schallenberg is largely untested after being propelled to the top job while his predecessor and influential People’s Party leader Sebastian Kurz tries to rid himself of corruption charges. 

A governing coalition with the Green Party is as fragile as ever, and the lockdown represents a hard U-turn for a government that had declared the pandemic all but over. The largest opposition group, the Social Democratic Party, has edged ahead in some polls.

Austria may provide a blueprint for countries to its east where vaccination rates are even lower and virus deaths have been surging. But it will also be an example of the risks of doing crisis management too late, said Thomas Hofer, a political analyst and consultant in Vienna.  

“Leadership and Austrian politics don’t wash well together,” Hofer said by phone. “They didn’t do it in a moment of strength but in a position of real weakness.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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