Can Austria’s compulsory vaccination campaign save its winter?

Getting Covid-19 vaccination rates to 80 per cent would be significant

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Europe is again the focal point of the global pandemic.

The number of Covid-19 deaths are on the increase and the autumn surge is overwhelming hospitals in many Central and Eastern European nations.

In response, Austria became the first European country to declare that vaccination would become mandatory. The country entered a new lockdown on Monday, shutting non-essential shops, bars and cafes as surging caseloads raised the prospect of a third winter in deep freeze for the continent.

Austria told people to work from home if they can. People may leave home for a limited number of reasons, such as going to workplaces, buying essentials or taking a walk.

Austrian ski lifts can remain open to the vaccinated, giving the beleaguered tourism industry some hope.

The Austrian government also announced that it will make it compulsory to get inoculated as of February 1. Many Austrians are sceptical about vaccinations, a view encouraged by the far-right Freedom Party, the third biggest in parliament.

Why has Austria ordered new Covid restrictions?

Authorities mainly blame the unvaccinated for the current Covid wave, although protection from vaccines given early this year is also waning. Inoculation greatly reduces the risk of serious illness or death, and reduces but does not prevent viral transmission or re-infection.

Austria's conservative-led government imposed a lockdown on the unvaccinated last week, but daily infections kept rising far above the previous peak, requiring this week's full lockdown.

Vaccination drives are one of the biggest weapons in keeping outbreaks within manageable limits.

But even compulsory vaccinations might not be enough to end an outbreak.

The average number of daily deaths tripled in recent weeks and hospitals in hard-hit states warned that intensive care units were hitting capacity.

“The problem with mandatory vaccination is that it doesn’t necessarily fix the low uptake issues, particularly when uptake is already quite high,” said Dr Peter English, a former consultant in communicable disease control.

Dr Thomas Szekeres, head of the Austrian Medical Chamber, hopes the campaign will push the proportion of vaccinated people up from about 66 per cent and reach 80 per cent or higher.

"We know that vaccination is the only way to decrease the number of infections," he said. "We know this from other countries."

Getting vaccination rates to 80 per cent is significant, experts say, because it would reduce transmission and ease pressure on hospitals.

Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein said the lockdown was necessary to bring down the number of new daily infections, which have surged to as many as 15,000 a day, and to reduce the number of virus patients in intensive care, currently at 531. But most of all, he said, it was needed to bring relief “to the people who work in this sector, the nurses and doctors who cannot take it any more”.

“It is a situation where we have to react now. The only way is with a lockdown, a relatively hard method, to lower the numbers with a wooden hammer,’’ Mr Mueckstein said.

Why has the Austrian vaccine take up been comparatively low?

About 66 per cent of Austria’s population is fully vaccinated, one of the lower rates in Western Europe.

Many Austrians are sceptical about vaccinations, a view encouraged by the far-right Freedom Party, the third biggest in parliament.

Vienna's weekend rally was organised by a far-right political party, and some protesters wore a yellow star reading "not vaccinated", mimicking the Star of David Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Political analysts say the government did not effectively communicate the necessity of the vaccinations early enough, and that many Austrians did not take the campaign seriously enough after former chancellor Sebastian Kurz declared the pandemic ove’’ last summer. Mr Kurz was forced out in a corruption scandal last month, replaced by his foreign minister, Alexander Schallenberg, who in less than a week expanded the controversial lockdown on the unvaccinated to a lockdown for everyone.

Political analyst Thomas Hofer blamed Mr Schallenberg for maintaining "the fiction" of a successfully contained pandemic for too long.

"The government didn't take the warnings of a next wave seriously," he said.

WHO special envoy David Nabarro said the UN agency was worried by polarised views on the virus.

“There’s only one way to deal with this, and that’s partnerships between governments and people,” he said. “Of course, if that’s going to be turned into polarisation, that gets to be extremely challenging.”

Asked about compulsory vaccinations, he said he wished they were not necessary but could become so if health systems came under strain.

Among the biggest unknowns is whether people who have shown great reluctance to vaccination now be persuaded to do so.

Is Monday’s lockdown enough to slow the spread?

Eastern European countries controlled the spread of the virus well during the early pandemic first wave but then experienced more severe second waves as they opened up in 2020.

Dr Szekeres said: “We hope that the lockdown for unvaccinated Austrians will be enough to decrease the number of infections. But the experts are not sure about that.

“Maybe we will need additional measures to reach the goal to decrease the number."

A waning immunity in those vaccinated more than six months ago, differing vaccine coverage among 12 to 15-year-olds, and varying approaches to face masks are all playing a role in Austria.

How have Austrians reacted?

The new restrictions have been met by anger.

The return of severe government restrictions brought about 40,000 protesters to Vienna's streets on Saturday.

"It's like a luxury prison. It's definitely limited freedom and for me it's not great psychologically," said Sascha Iamkovyi, 43, an entrepreneur in the food sector, describing his return to lockdown on a chilly, overcast day in an unusually quiet Vienna.

"People were promised that if they got vaccinated they would be able to lead a normal life, but now that's not true."

Georg Huber, a lawyer on his way to the office in Vienna, said: “I am particularly annoyed by the lockdown.

"They should have done more research in, I don’t know, summer? They should have implemented a mandatory vaccination in the summer, when it turned out it would not be enough to hope that people get there without any coercion. I think the government just overslept.”

The renewed restrictions will be in place for at least 10 days, but are likely to be extended for a further 10, after which the government has indicated plans to open up so Austrians can celebrate Christmas normally. Restrictions, however, will remain for the unvaccinated.

Updated: November 22, 2021, 3:56 PM