Upper Austria plans lockdown for the unvaccinated from Monday

From Monday, the region of Upper Austria will bring in a lockdown for unvaccinated people only, if the government gives it the go-ahead to do so. The move comes amid a rapid spread of Covid-19 in the region, putting hospitals under severe strain.

The lockdown would need to get government approval, to check that it is legally valid to apply it only to a certain group. Photo: Matthias Mitterlehner/Unsplash

“The situation is dramatic,” regional governor Thomas Stelzer told media on Thursday afternoon.

It comes just a day after he reportedly rejected proposals for this type of measure at a meeting with the Health Minister, and follows calls from several leading medical professionals for a lockdown aimed at unvaccinated people.

People without either proof of vaccination against Covid-19 or recent recovery from the illness are already excluded from parts of society including for example events, restaurants, hotels and hairdressers as of Monday November 8th. A lockdown would mean this group could not leave their homes other than for essential reasons such as going to work, supermarkets, or walking for exercise.

Stelzer said the lockdown would be effective from Monday, November 15th, as long as the federal government confirms this can go ahead from a legal standpoint. Constitutional law professor Andreas Janko told the ORF broadcaster: “The decisive question is whether the current Covid-19 measures allow for such a differentiated lockdown.”

Stelzer also announced an extension of the FFP2 mask mandate, meaning that all staff in retail and catering must wear the masks again for example. 

The proposed changes would mean the region will move into level five of Austria’s five-stage national Covid restrictions plan.

The seven-day incidence rate in Upper Austria was at 1,193 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past week by Thursday, putting it well above the national average of 761. It also has the lowest vaccination rate Austria-wide at just under 60 percent of the total population.

Austria’s Corona Commission has warned of a “serious threat to medical care” for the whole population, and hospitals in Upper Austria have already reported being under severe strain. One head of an intensive care unit told Die Presse their hospital was already invoking triage, meaning that care was being allocated based on urgency and may not be offered to all patients in need.

We can expect further details on the specifics of the new restrictions — which according to Austrian media reports may also include a more widespread FFP2 mask mandate and new rules to events — on Friday.

Some of the key questions will be how long the lockdown would be imposed and how it would be enforced, something which experts have already said would be difficult after the government added the fifth stage to its five-step Covid restrictions plan.

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Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.