Europe Toughens Rules for Unvaccinated as Fourth Covid Wave Swells
Austria took the hardest line yet on Monday, beginning a lockdown aimed exclusively at those who are not inoculated, part of a pattern to make life harder for resisters.,
ROME — As temperatures drop and coronavirus infections spike across Europe, some countries are introducing increasingly targeted restrictions against the unvaccinated who are driving another wave of contagion and putting economic recoveries, public health and an eventual return to prepandemic freedoms at risk.
On Monday, Austria set a new bar for such measures in the West. Facing a 134 percent increase in cases in the last two weeks, the Austrian government cracked down on its unvaccinated population over the age of 12, restricting their movement to traveling for work, school, buying groceries and medical care.
“Our task as the federal government is to protect the people of Austria,” Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg told a news conference on Sunday. “We are fulfilling this responsibility.”
Austria’s measure takes the extra step of explicitly singling out the unvaccinated, and amounted to “a massive reduction in contacts between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated,” Professor Eva Schernhammer of the Medical University of Vienna told the BBC.
But the measure also fits a pattern across Europe of countries passing rules and measures to make life harder for the unvaccinated, with the goal of motivating them to get a shot.
In Italy, vaccination, recent recovery from the virus, or frequent negative swabs are required to work. 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 obtain a negative coronavirus test before traveling on buses or trains. In France, booster shots will become requisite for people 65 and older hoping to secure a health pass.
The measures, taken together, are a bleak and clear sign that a virus that however fleetingly seemed a piece of European history was still very much part of its present and future. The World Health Organization warned recently that Europe was once again the epicenter of the pandemic and that half a million people on the continent could die from Covid in the next few months. Europe reported a 10 percent increase in deaths and a 7 percent increase in new infections in the first week of November, compared to the previous week.
Hospitalizations and deaths were mostly in Eastern Europe, but the new wave threatened the economic recoveries and Christmas vacations across the continent. A return to normalcy predicated on the success of vaccination campaigns seemed increasingly threatened by the unvaccinated who offered the virus room to run.
Nevertheless, some European leaders considered Austria’s new measure a step too far.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, which has suffered a rash of new cases in recent weeks, kept his resistance to mask mandates and health passes.
“Our friends on the continent have been forced to respond with various degrees of new restrictions, from full lockdowns, to lockdowns for the unvaccinated, to restrictions on business opening hours and restrictions on social gatherings,” Mr. Johnson said Monday, but he 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. He said he worried about “storm clouds that are gathering over the continent.”
This is especially the case in Eastern Europe, where the scars left by decades of misinformation under Communism seemed to have opened up and spread skepticism about medical expertise. Romania, which has Europe’s second-lowest vaccination rate recently reported the world’s highest per capita death rate from Covid-19. In Bulgaria, hospitals are inundated.
Last month, the small Baltic nation of Latvia, where resistance to vaccination is high, especially among the ethnic Russian population, responded to its outbreak with a full lockdown. Russia and Ukraine, which each have vaccination rates below 50 percent, also introduced widespread restrictions.
Infections have erupted over the borders in Western Europe.
In Germany, which has suffered a dizzying increase in cases in part because of a slow rollout of booster vaccines, officials had hoped that charging people for swab tests would motivate them to get vaccinated. But they will once again try and keep closer tabs on the virus by making free coronavirus tests available to all adults in the country. The government has suggested that those tests could be required to enter events and certain venues, even for the vaccinated.
Over the weekend, the three parties joining to form Germany’s next governing coalition agreed to impose stricter rules against unvaccinated people, including mandating that they obtain a negative coronavirus test before traveling on buses or trains, as infection rates reach new highs.
Some German states are introducing stricter mask mandates and requiring vaccination instead of negative tests for entry into venues.
Infections have also broken out in northern Italy, on the Austrian and Slovenian borders. Italy, with a vaccination rate over 80 percent for people over 12, already has among the toughest restrictions in Europe through a health pass that requires vaccination or constant swabs for employees to work.
The Italian government in recent days announced that taxis can only carry two people, unless they are family members, and allowed the health authorities or the railway police to stop trains if passengers had symptoms that could be associated with the coronavirus.
“I am worried about an increase in infections ahead of Christmas,” Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s foreign minister, said at a conference on Sunday, adding that the stringency of the health pass was designed to keep businesses open, and that the country would do everything necessary to stay open.
“Look at the other European states,” Mr. Di Maio added, “which have a lower vaccination level than us, they are inserting a series of measures that are much more restrictive than ours.”
Greece this month introduced rules requiring unvaccinated people to present a negative rapid or PCR test in order to gain access to public services, banks, shops and hair salons. They needed to do the same to go inside cafes and restaurants, prompting a 24-hour strike planned for Tuesday to protest the new measures. The Greek authorities have said they are also considering further measures against the unvaccinated.
France has announced that masks will be required again in primary schools and that it would tighten restrictions in the face of rising cases, with the number of daily new infections now more than doubled from early October, from about 4,000 to over 8,000.
People over the age of 65 will as of Dec. 15 need to get a booster to keep eligibility for the health pass that allows them into restaurants, museums and long-distance trains.
Countries that had succeeded in vaccinating large percentages of their populations instead relaxed restrictions. Portugal, which has vaccinated nearly 90 percent of its population, on Oct. 1 reduced its health pass requirement and lifted nearly all of its coronavirus restrictions. Spain, which has hit an 80-percent vaccination rate, does not require a health pass.
But the trend seems very much to be toward tightening as winter approaches and the virus spreads.
Even Spain’s northern Basque region is expected on Tuesday to announce restrictions on gatherings in towns with high infection rates. And 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, according to The Associated Press. “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.”
Reporting was contributed by Christopher F. Schuetze in Dortmund, Germany; Stephen Castle in London; Aurelien Breeden in Paris; Isabella Kwai in London; and Emma Bubola and Elisabetta Povoledo in Rome.