Austria on Friday became the first Western democracy to announce that it would mandate Covid vaccinations for its entire adult population as it prepared for a nationwide lockdown starting Monday.
The extraordinary measure by Austria, which only days ago separated itself from the rest of Europe by introducing a lockdown for the unvaccinated, who are driving a surge of infections, made for another alarming statement about the severity of the fourth wave of the virus in Europe, now the epicentre of the pandemic.
But it also showed that increasingly desperate governments are losing their patience with vaccine skeptics and shifting from voluntary to obligatory measures to promote vaccinations and beat back a virus that shows no sign of waning, rattling global markets at the prospect that still tentative economic recoveries will be undone.
Some European countries — including Germany, which once seemed a model of how to manage the virus — are now facing their worst levels of infections in the nearly two years since the pandemic began.
The surge, health authorities say, is being driven by stubborn resistance to getting vaccinated in deep pockets of the population, cold weather driving people indoors, and loosened restrictions, rather than new variants.
“For a long time — maybe too long — I and others assumed that it must be possible to convince people in Austria to voluntarily get vaccinated,” Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg of Austria said Friday. “We therefore have reached a very difficult decision to introduce a national vaccine mandate.”
With its latest move, Austria significantly moved ahead of other European countries that have inched up to, but not crossed, a threshold that once seemed unthinkable. The announcement drew an immediate threat of violent protest this weekend by leaders of anti-vaccine movements and the far-right Freedom Party, which compared the government’s latest mandates with those of a dictatorship.
Many European countries have already instituted mandates in all but name only — requiring strict health passes as proof of vaccination, recovery from infection or a negative test to partake in most social functions, travel or to go to work. Many already require children to be vaccinated against measles and other illnesses to attend school.
The notion of requiring vaccination in adults against COVID was a line that Europe had seemed unwilling to cross, however, with leaders often contrasting their respect for civil liberties with authoritarian-styled countries.
But just as lockdowns have become a fact of life, vaccine mandates are increasingly becoming plausible. German lawmakers in parliament voted Thursday to force unvaccinated people going to work or using public transit to provide daily test results. The country’s vaccination rate among adults is about 79%, according to data from the Robert Koch Institute in Germany. The rate is one of the lowest in Western Europe.
On Friday, Jens Spahn, the acting health minister in Germany, was asked whether a general lockdown was possible for the country. “We are in a position where nothing should be ruled out,” he said.
The specter of a lockdown in Germany, Europe’s largest economy, sent jitters through European markets hungering for economic recovery and sales during the Christmas shopping season.
Austria’s new vaccine mandate will take effect in February, in the hopes that as many people as possible will be motivated to sign up for their initial inoculations but also booster shots, Austria’s health minister, Wolfgang Mückstein, said.
It also gave leaders time to formalize legal guidelines for the mandate, he said, adding that there would be exceptions for people who are not able to be vaccinated.
The health ministry said Friday’s announcement was only the first step in drawing up a law that would establish the mandate, a process that would involve civil society and a careful review. Details about how the law would be carried out and enforced would not be available until the process had been completed, it said.
The health minister said the government felt confident a law could be drawn up within the bounds of the constitution, citing a previous national mandate for smallpox that was passed in 1948.
The measures seemed designed to save another imperiled Christmas and ski season.
Austria’s chancellor said that the lockdown, one of the first since the spring, will be evaluated after 10 days and will not extend beyond Dec. 13, to ensure that people would be able to celebrate Christmas and that stores would not lose out on holiday sales. But the country’s economy minister was already drafting a compensation package for some businesses.
Austria has registered 15,809 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, according to figures released Friday, straining the country’s health system, which has reached its limit.
Roberto Burioni, a leading Italian virus expert at San Raffaele University in Milan, said the explanation for Austria’s outbreak was “very simple: lower vaccination rates and less measures, and it’s a period of the year when respiratory viruses spread.” He called the refusal of so many people in Austria to get vaccinated “really disappointing.”
There was so far no indication of a new variant driving the infections.
The highly transmissible delta variant already grew to dominance across much of Europe over the summer, public health researchers said. Versions of delta with new mutations appeared a few months ago, they said, but none have spiked in a way that could account for the current surge.
It is also considered unlikely that waning immunity from vaccines is playing a major part since most of Europe lagged behind the United States in vaccinating their populations.
Instead, the virus had found room to circulate among the unvaccinated, researchers say, offering the virus — which fleetingly seemed beaten back — a toehold from which to spread back across the continent.