Austria is back in a full national lockdown as it battles against a surge in coronavirus infections.
It is the first EU country to implement the drastic measure amid the current wave of COVID-19 that is hitting a number of European countries.
It is also the first EU country to announce a vaccine mandate for the entire country, which will come into force on February 1.
Average daily deaths have tripled in recent weeks in Austria, and some hospitals have warned that their intensive care units are reaching capacity.
The lockdown will last at least ten days but could extend to 20, officials said.
People will be able to leave their homes only for specific reasons, including buying groceries, going to the doctor, or exercising.
Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg announced the lockdown and the mandate on Friday, apologising to all vaccinated people, saying it wasn’t fair that they had to suffer under the renewed lockdown restrictions.
Earlier, Austria had tried out a lockdown just for unvaccinated people but it did not slow infections enough.
Less than 66 per cent of Austria’s 8.9 million people are fully vaccinated, and inoculations have plateaued at one of the lowest rates in Western Europe.
Austria is among several Western European countries where infections are rising rapidly and where there are concerns that vaccination rates are insufficient to hold off a winter surge at hospitals.
Thanks largely to inoculations, hospitals in Austria are not under the same pressure they were earlier in the pandemic, but many are still straining to handle rising numbers of COVID-19 patients while also attempting to clear backlogs with exhausted or sick staff.
Austria’s new lockdown is its fourth since the pandemic began and comes as the country has struggled without success to stop spiraling case numbers. On Friday, it reported 15,809 new infections, an all-time high.
After ten days, the lockdown’s effects will be assessed. If virus cases have not gone down sufficiently, it can be extended to a maximum of 20 days.
After that, the lockdown will be lifted for all vaccinated people but could stay in place for those who refuse to get vaccinated, the government says.
Protests against measures
The new measures, especially the vaccine mandate, have been met with fierce opposition among some in the country.
A Saturday protest in the capital city of Vienna drew 40,000 people, according to police, including members of far-right parties and groups.
Measures elsewhere in Europe have been met with sometimes violent protests too in recent days.
On Friday night, Dutch police opened fire on protesters and seven people were injured in rioting that erupted in downtown Rotterdam around a demonstration against COVID-19 restrictions.
Protests were also held in Italy’s capital Rome and Zagreb in Croatia over the weekend.