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COVID-19

‘Unavoidable’: How Austria has reacted to the new nationwide lockdown

Austria's government on Friday announced a U-turn by bringing in a new lockdown for the whole population. Here's how people are reacting, from politicians to scientists to The Local's own readers.

'Unavoidable': How Austria has reacted to the new nationwide lockdown
Protestors against Covid-19 measures at an earlier demonstration in Austria. Photo: Alex Halada/AFP

Protests planned for Saturday

A major demonstration against Austria’s Covid restrictions and the lockdown for unvaccinated people had already been planned for November 20th, and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) stepped up their calls for people to attend. Several thousand protestors are expected to attend each of three protests planned in the capital — around 10,000 people in total.

FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl is unable to attend the rally as he is in quarantine after testing positive for Covid-19. Reacting to Friday’s announcement, he said Austria was now a “dictatorship”.

Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg directly linked Kickl’s anti-vaccine stance to the country’s low vaccination rate and the need to take harsh measures, saying spreading misinformation about vaccines was “an attack on our healthcare system”.

READ ALSO: Follow the latest Covid-19 developments as they happen

Regional leaders

Tyrol governor Günther Platter and Vienna mayor Michael Ludwig joined the chancellor and health minister at the press conference.

Both acknowledged that this was a measure they had hoped to avoid and that they knew would be unpopular, with Ludwig saying: “We can take the criticism, because this is about saving lives.”

He added that he could have “made it easy” for himself by avoiding lockdown in Vienna, due to the comparatively lower incidence rate, but said the nationwide situation called for “solidarity”.

Asked about the protests planned in the capital for Saturday, Ludwig said: “I ask the media to spread what science knows, and to counter the absurd ideas [that the Covid vaccines are unsafe].” 

The governor of Vorarlberg, Markus Wallner, has said the decision to bring in a general lockdown was “unavoidable”.

Doctors welcome measures

“The record numbers of infections that we have now been experienced day after day will be reflected in the normal and intensive care units with a time lag. It is really high time for an emergency break,” Walter Hasibeder, President of the Austrian intensive care representative body ÖGARI, said according to the Kurier.

“From our point of view, there are no alternatives to an even stronger restriction on contacts, therefore all measures are to be welcomed. It’s late, though. It is of course the order of the day that people who have not yet been vaccinated [do so] and those who have already been immunised think of the booster dose in good time.”

Austrian residents

Readers of The Local have been getting in touch to share their views, and frustration and anger at the new measures were common sentiments as people talked of their pre-Christmas plans being cancelled (the lockdown is currently expected to last until December 13th).

“I’m vaccinated. I got vaccinated in order to not have my freedom restricted. My freedom is now being restricted because of anti-vaxxers, and my children’s lives put on hold again […] This really isn’t right or fair,” one comment said.

But there were also voices of support for the decision.

“I am completely fine with the requirement for lockdown. The minority of people who are unvaccinated are behaving irresponsibly and thinking ‘my body my choice’ but they don’t seem to understand that their body spreads the virus to other people, even the vaccinated, so they are being selfish by perpetuating the continued spread of the virus,” one reader, Michael in St. Johann im Pongau, told us.

He said: “I think the Austrian government are doing exactly the right thing.”

READ ALSO: How did we get here? Why Austria is bringing in lockdowns again

Businesses call for support 

At the press conference announcing the lockdown, the government said economic measures to support affected businesses would also be extended.

A winter lockdown will hit the tourism and hospitality industries particularly hard, with all non-essential businesses also needing to close and others switching to take-away only.

Rainer Trefelik, head of the Chamber of Commerce, told the APA press agency that the new lockdown was a “historical catastrophe that could have been avoided”.

He said that retailers were experiencing “huge frustration and disappointment”, and needed financial support.

Teachers blast lack of clarity over schools

One of the points of confusion in the lockdown is the issue of schools. These will not be officially closed, remaining open to “those who need them” although the government has said parents should keep their children at home if at all possible.

“Political communication is a catastrophe — you hear something different from every side,” said teachers’ union representative Paul Kimberger, speaking to news agency APA. “I have my doubts whether these measures will really reduce the extremely high incidence in schools.”

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COVID-19 VACCINES

Austria recommends 4th Covid vaccine dose for everyone over 12

Austria's autumn Covid-19 plan includes a fourth Covid-19 dose to all those older than 12 and the Health Ministry doesn't rule out further measures, especially a return of the mask mandate.

Austria recommends 4th Covid vaccine dose for everyone over 12

Austria’s Health Ministry and the country’s National Immunisation Panel (NIG) have recommended a fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine to the general population ahead of autumn.

Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) and physician Herwig Kollaritsch of the Immunisation Panel have requested people take the vaccination before the cold months, reiterating that the Covid-19 vaccine is safe and protects against more severe courses of the disease.

“You can do a lot before autumn. Don’t wait until the numbers rise. Get vaccinated, take the booster shots”, Kollaritsch said in a press conference this Wednesday, August 31st.

READ ALSO: LATEST: The Covid rules across Austria from August 2022

The previous recommendation was only for people older than 60 or those in risk groups. “After there was already the booster recommendation for the vulnerable and over 60-year-olds over the summer, all other groups are to get a booster in the coming weeks,” the health minister said.

Only 58.9 percent of the population is currently sufficiently vaccinated, as per the recommendation of the National Immunisation Panel (NIG) – which for the majority of the population is three doses – or if they’ve had Covid then two doses and a recent recovered status.

New measures ahead of autumn

The health minister stopped short of announcing new Covid-19 measures for autumn.

When he announced the end of the mask mandate in the country back in May, Rauch had said the suspension would be “temporary” and masks were likely to return after summer, depending on the pandemic, particularly on hospitalisation numbers.

Currently, masks are obligatory in the health sector and on public transport in Vienna.

“We evaluate the situation weekly by talking with the hospital heads in the states. We have a very good view of the Covid-19 data, and we don’t rule out bringing measures back in the future”, he said.

READ ALSO: Vienna extends stricter Covid-19 rules until late October

He added: “It is likely that in the autumn, compulsory masks will again be useful and necessary in certain areas such as public transport or supermarkets,”.

For now, though, the minister said he recommends people to get vaccinated, wear masks where social distancing is not possible, and get tested regularly – even if those measures are not mandatory.

When should you get vaccinated?

The fourth vaccination should come a minimum of four months after the third one (or after a Covid-19 infection) but not after six months of the third dose (regardless of whether or not the person has had an infection after the last vaccine), according to the NIG.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Which Austrian states will allow Covid-infected teachers in classrooms?

For children between five and eleven years of age, the basic immunisation – which consists of three vaccinations – should be completed by the start of school at the latest; no booster vaccination is currently recommended in this age group.

Austria expects vaccines adapted to the omicron variant to arrive in the country before the end of September, the health minister said.

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