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ANALYSIS

‘It’s too late’: How do Austrians feel about the new rules for unvaccinated?

Austria's decision to put its 1.6 million unvaccinated residents under lockdown has grabbed the attention of the world, but how are people in the country reacting to the measure -- particularly those directly affected?

Security staff check for vaccine passes at a Vienna Christmas market.
Security staff check for vaccine passes at a Vienna Christmas market. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

A week after introducing rules that excluded people without 2G (proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19) from restaurants, cinemas, hairdressers and other businesses, on Monday Austria went a step a further and brought in a ten-day lockdown.

Under the new rules, people without a vaccine pass can only leave their house for certain special reasons such as work or food shopping, and can be subject to random checks by police and fines of up to €1,450.

KEY POINTS: The Covid rules that apply nationwide and regionally in Austria

Queues for vaccines

Austria’s Chancellor has said the lockdown is already having the desired effect, with people queuing for vaccines at centres across the country after the announcement of the measure.

“I have to get vaccinated now, otherwise nothing works any more,” a 31-year-old masseuse from Upper Austria told the Bayerischer Rundfunk.

‘Harsh but necessary’

An opinion poll carried out by research institute Unique for Profil magazine in early November, before the lockdown was announced amid a drastic rise in cases, found that 31 percent wanted a lockdown for the unvaccinated, while 14 percent wanted a general lockdown.

On Tuesday, Statista published the results of an opinion survey of 500 people carried out in October, which showed that 58 percent of people thought a lockdown only for unvaccinated people was either “absolutely the right thing to do” (38 percent) or “somewhat the right thing to do” (20 percent).

One student in Vienna told the Kronen Zeitung the measures are “harsh but necessary”.

And one passerby told France Info radio: “Unfortunately it’s necessary, there’s no other solution. We have been battling this virus for over a year and half.”

‘Discrimination’

The leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) Herbert Kickl, who himself is in quarantine after testing positive for Covid-19, has also called the lockdown “discriminatory” and labelled it “the latest Corona madness”.

His party put forward a motion in Tuesday’s parliamentary session calling for the lockdown to be lifted and is calling for protests on Saturday.

Demonstrations on a smaller scale already took place last weekend following the announcement of the lockdown, with protestors chanting slogans such as “Freedom!” and “My body, my choice”.

Nikolaus Unterguggenberger, a 57-year-old teacher from Carinthia province, whose family is not vaccinated, said that the partial lockdown created a “two-class system”.

“Our freedoms are being taken away from us,” he told AFP, adding that the measure was illegal and that he would continue to go out and meet friends.

“It’s time that more people spoke up,” Sabine, a 49-year-old energy consultant, told AFP at a Vienna rally, calling the move “discrimination”.

Some of those unvaccinated said the restrictions would have little impact on their quality of life.

“I will continue to live as I always have done. I am not someone who goes to the restaurant every weekend. I prefer to get take-aways,” said Manuel.

‘Unenforceable’

Even people who are in favour of vaccination and accept that this is the best way out of the pandemic have raised concerns that the lockdown is polarising, and unlikely to be enforceable.

A passer-by in Lower Austria, named as Björn, told Der Standard in a video that the measure served to “demonise” unvaccinated people and noted “we vaccinated people are not completely risk-free”.

Another passer-by, Patrick, said: “My colleagues can come to work with a PCR test but by the new regulations, they can’t go across the hallway and go into another shop. Who is going to control that? The police can’t be everywhere and they can’t expect the workers in the shops to regulate it, so I don’t think it’s going to work.”

“Rather than pointing fingers and assigning blame, [efforts to curb the spread of the virus] should be about making the effort that there is no need for a lockdown – for anyone,” writes journalist Oona Kroisletner in a short column for Der Standard. According to her, the lockdown risks sending vaccine hesitant Austrians “not into the vaccination centres, but into the arms of the corona-sceptic parties and groups”.

“It is a pandemic of unvaccinated AND vaccinated people,” echoed a headline in the Kleine Zeitung, referring to ex-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s description of a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”.

‘Too late’

Some are sceptical that putting only unvaccinated people under lockdown will be enough to ease the severe pressure on Austria’s hospitals.

Walter Hasibeder, President of the Society for Anesthesiology, Resuscitation and Intensive Care Medicine (ÖGARI) has said the partial lockdown has come “too late”, instead calling for a general lockdown, at least in the regions of Salzburg and Upper Austria which have the highest incidence rates.

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TRAVEL NEWS

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

The mandatory EU-wide mask requirement for air travel is set to be dropped from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still require passengers to wear masks on some or all flights

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

Europe-wide facemask rules on flights are set to be ditched as early as next week in light of new recommendations from health and air safety experts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dropped recommendations for mandatory mask-wearing in airports and during flights in updated Covid-19 safety measures for travel issued on Wednesday, May 11th.

The new rules are expected to be rolled out from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still continue to require the wearing of masks on some or all of flights. And the updated health safety measures still say that wearing a face mask remains one of the best ways to protect against the transmission of the virus.

The joint EASA/ECDC statement reminded travellers that masks may still be required on flights to destinations in certain countries that still require the wearing of masks on public transport and in transport hubs.

It also recommends that vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask which offers a higher level of protection than a standard surgical mask.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said in the statement. 

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”  

ECDC director Andrea Ammon added: “The development and continuous updates to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have given travellers and aviation personnel better knowledge of the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. 

“While risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal. 

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission. 

“The rules and requirements of departure and destination states should be respected and applied consistently, and travel operators should take care to inform passengers of any required measures in a timely manner.”

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