Coronavirus Global situation

Europe toughens rules for unvaccinated amid 4th wave

Steps include lockdowns, booster shots for older people and proof of negative test results

VIENNA • As temperatures fall and coronavirus cases spike across Europe, some countries are introducing increasingly targeted curbs against the unvaccinated who are driving another wave of contagion and putting economic recoveries, public health and a return to pre-pandemic freedoms at risk.

On Monday, Austria set a new bar: Facing a 134 per cent rise in cases in the past two weeks, the government cracked down on its unvaccinated population over age 12, restricting their movements to going to work or school, buying groceries and seeking medical care.

"Our task as the federal government is to protect the people of Austria," Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said on Sunday. "We are fulfilling this responsibility."

Austria's step is in line with a pattern across Europe of governments setting rules to make life harder for the unvaccinated, with the goal of motivating people to get a shot.

The World Health Organisation warned recently that Europe was once again the epicentre of the pandemic and that half a million people on the continent could die from Covid-19 in the next few months.

Europe reported a 10 per cent increase in deaths and a 7 per cent increase in new infections in the first week of November, compared to the previous week.

Hospitalisations and deaths are mostly in Eastern Europe, but the new wave threatens economic recoveries and Christmas vacations across the continent. A return to normalcy predicated on the success of vaccination campaigns was being increasingly threatened by the unvaccinated.

In the Netherlands, which returned to a partial lockdown by restricting business opening hours last Saturday, hospitals are feeling the strain. Covid-19 patient numbers in Dutch hospitals increased to around 2,000 on Monday, including almost 400 in intensive care, the highest level since May.

But the head of the hospital association on Monday said the worst was yet to come, as hospitals scale back regular care in order to deal with urgent Covid-19 patients.

That is why governments all around Europe have been taking the extra step of explicitly singling out the unvaccinated.

The new rules in Austria amounted to "a massive reduction in contacts between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated", Dr Eva Schernhammer of the Medical University of Vienna told the BBC.

Similarly, in Germany, which has been besieged by a resurgent virus, the incoming government has said it will impose stricter rules against unvaccinated people, including mandating that they get a negative coronavirus test before taking public transport. In France, booster shots will become requisite for people 65 and older hoping to secure a health pass needed to enter places like bars and restaurants.

Some leaders consider Austria's new measure a step too far.

Britain has suffered a rash of new cases in recent weeks, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson has kept measures to just mask mandates and health passes.

Expressing his worry over "storm clouds that are gathering over the continent", Mr Johnson on Monday admitted that large parts of the National Health Service are under "very significant pressure".

Asked directly about the possibility of another lockdown this Christmas, Mr Johnson replied that there is nothing in current data that signalled the need for restrictions, but warned, "clearly we cannot rule anything out".

He also doubled down on vaccinations, saying boosters would be offered to those aged 40 and older, and second doses made available to those aged 16 and 17 who have so far been allowed one.

But Austria's Chancellor made clear that Europe's only way out of the pandemic, and lockdowns, was vaccination. "My aim is very clearly to get the unvaccinated to get themselves vaccinated, and not to lock down the vaccinated," Mr Schallenberg told Austria's O1 radio. "In the long term, the way out of this vicious circle we are in - and it is a vicious circle, we are stumbling from wave to lockdown, and that can't carry on ad infinitum - is only vaccination."

NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2021, with the headline Europe toughens rules for unvaccinated amid 4th wave. Subscribe