Austria is days away from introducing a lockdown for millions of people who are not fully vaccinated against, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said, as daily infections hit a record high and hospital intensive care units are increasingly strained.
During a news conference Thursday, the chancellor said parliament should give the "green light" for the move on Sunday, and the restrictions could then be applied across the country. Schallenberg did not say when such measures might take effect, although he said random spot checks would be conducted in public places to enforce the lockdown.
Under the proposed restrictions, people who are not fully vaccinated would only be allowed to leave their homes for reasons considered essential, such as going to work, grocery shopping, or visiting the doctor.
"Namely, exactly what we all had to suffer through in 2020," Schallenberg said, referring to three national lockdowns Austria went through last year.
He said that although such restrictions would be a "very harsh measure," they appear to be necessary and "probably inevitable."
"I don't see why two-thirds should lose their freedom because one-third is dithering," Schallenberg said of the substantial minority who remain. "For me, it is clear that there should be no lockdown for the vaccinated out of solidarity for the unvaccinated."
Schallenberg added that the unvaccinated face an "uncomfortable" winter and Christmas.
Currently, the Austrian national health agency is reporting the rate of cases has more than doubled since late October.
The surge in Austria comes at a time when Eastern European states, with the continent's lowest vaccination rates, are experiencing some of the world's highest daily death tolls per capita, according to Reuters.
Austria has taken a series of measures in recent weeks in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 and encourage more people to get vaccinated. Last week, the government said it would bar unvaccinated people from entering places like restaurants, bars, hair salons and entertainment venues — a measure that took effect on Monday.
The latest announcement came as neighboring Germany also said it planned to tighten restrictions on the unvaccinated as infections there soared to record highs.
Schallenberg said Austrian authorities would consider a vaccine mandate for some professional groups and added that the country's vaccination rate is "shamefully low." About 65% of the country's population has been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus so far — a larger percentage than in the United States, but one of the lowest in the European Union.
Schallenberg's announcement sparked fierce backlash, especially among the far-right opposition Freedom Party, which has been campaigning on a platform of vaccine skepticism and argues the move will create a group of second-class citizens.
The World Health Organization said Wednesday that Europe is the only region where both. It has warned that the continent could see another half a million deaths by February.
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