Despite huge uptake of the various COVID-19 vaccinations, the pandemic is still very much with us. This is exactly the case in Austria, where surging infection numbers have caused the government to impose restrictions on the unvaccinated.

Whilst most countries have thus far opted to avoid this, clearly Austria feels that the best route out of this new COVID-19 wave is to limit the movements of the unvaccinated.

View of Graben Street in Vienna at dusk. The street is empty bar a neo classical statue depicting a woman a child.

Austria’s capital, Vienna, had already imposed restrictions prior to Friday’s announcement.

As of Monday, unvaccinated Austrian citizens will be unable to enter restaurants, cafés, hairdressers, and are restricted from accessing public events. 

These new rules were announced on Friday, leaving Austria’s unvaccinated citizens, roughly 36% of the population, in a social limbo.

“The occupancies of intensive-care beds are increasing significantly faster than we had expected”

Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg has described the current spread of the virus as “exceptional”, saying as well that “we’re going to have to tighten the reins on the unvaccinated.”

He showed concern at the worsening conditions within Austria’s healthcare system, saying “the occupancies of intensive-care beds are increasing significantly faster that we had expected.”

The measures follow a further 9,338 cases on Friday, which was close to the previous record of 9,586 recorded last November. Saturday then saw a record 9,943 cases. Over the last seven days alone, Austria’s infection rate rose from 317.4 cases per 100,000 people, to 522.4 per 100,000.

How much of the increase in intensive-care bed occupancy is down to the unvaccinated was not made clear, but Austria does currently have one of Western Europe’s lowest uptake rates of the vaccine.

Austria is planning a transition period of four weeks for those who a) have had one vaccine jab alone, b) have already recovered from the virus, or c) can show a negative test result. During these four weeks, anyone with only one jab and those with a negative PCR test will be able to access public events and the aforementioned locations.

After this, no one without proof of two COVID-19 jabs (of any manufacturer) will be allowed entry to any of the above.

The restrictions imposed on the unvaccinated are open to further tightening if the situation doesn’t improve. Schallenberg made it clear in October that if Austria’s ICUs fill to one-third of the country’s total capacity, then more lockdown restrictions for the unvaccinated will be implemented.

The chancellor has been keen to see his country’s vaccine uptake improve, calling the vaccine a “moral responsibility” for Austria’s citizens. It has been suggested in the past that Austria’s low vaccination rate is down to high levels of skepticism surrounding the vaccine.

The country’s third biggest party in parliament, the right-wing Freedom Party, have also expressed distrust in the vaccine. Herbert Kickl, the party’s leader, has described the vaccines as “a genetic engineering experiment”, though he himself has landed in hot water after secret tapes suggested he’d gotten the vaccine in secret.

The Freedom Party’s rhetoric around the vaccine has had a clear impact on their voting stronghold of Upper Austria, which has the lowest vaccination rate in the country (just 55.5% of the population in Upper Austria is fully vaccinated).

Regardless of the outcome in Austria, it will no doubt be in the thoughts of many other European countries dealing with their own COVID-19 outbreaks. Greece has already moved to restrict access to shops and workplaces for the unvaccinated, unless they can produce a negative test twice a week. The unvaccinated in France now have to pay for tests, and Germany’s Angela Merkel is pushing for more restrictions on the unvaccinated.

Whether more countries in Europe opt for the same or similar restrictions remains to be seen, but if Austria’s drastic measures encourage better vaccination uptake, then it’s not out of the question to suggest they might consider something.