COVID-19: Austria starts new national lockdown as protests against coronavirus restrictions spread across Europe
Austria has started another national lockdown to tackle rising COVID-19 cases as tens of thousands of protesters rally in cities across Europe.
The lockdown is the first since vaccines became widely available, with most gathering places – such as restaurants, cafes, bars, theatres, non-essential shops, and hairdressers – ordered to close for 10 days with the potential for an extension to 20 days.
It comes as thousands of protesters rallied in cities across Europe over the weekend against leaders looking to tighten COVID-19 restrictions to curb the latest wave of infections.
The Austrian government has said people can leave their homes for a limited number of reasons, such as going to work or buying essentials, and they can also go for a walk, meeting one person from another household at a time.
But the famous Christmas markets have been closed and only those who have been vaccinated will be able to use ski lifts.
Hotels will close to tourists who were not already staying there when the lockdown began but workplaces and schools will remain open, although the government has said parents should keep children at home if possible.
The number of new cases daily in Austria has hovered between 14,000 and 15,000 in recent days – up sharply from just a few hundred a day during the summer, and under 3,000 a day for much of October.
Health minister Wolfgang Mueckstein told ORF TV: “It is a situation where we have to react now. A lockdown – a relatively tough method, a sledgehammer – is the only option to reduce the numbers (of infections) here.”
However, tens of thousands of protesters – many from far-right groups – marched through Vienna over the weekend with fire-lit torches and banners saying “My body, my choice”, while others burned face masks.
Protesters threw fireworks and bottles while police used pepper spray. Several people were arrested but police did not specify how many.
A similar picture has spread across Europe as governments face a delicate balancing act between trying to contain the disease and maintaining a fragile economic recovery.
The continent accounts for more than half of the average seven-day cases worldwide and around half of latest deaths – the highest levels since April last year when COVID was at its initial peak in Italy.
In the Netherlands, riots broke out for the third night in a row on Sunday evening in several towns and cities, including Leeuwarden and Groningen in the north, the eastern town of Enschede and Tilburg in the south.
Two football matches in the country’s professional league had to be paused on Saturday after fans broke into stadiums, while police in the Hague said five officers were injured as they tried to stop rioting youths who set at least two fires and threw fireworks.
The most violent scenes came on Friday night in Rotterdam where police clashed with mobs of angry youths who set fires and threw rocks, resulting in 51 arrests.
In Belgium, tens of thousands of people marched through Brussels on Sunday to protest against reinforced COVID-19 restrictions imposed to counter the latest spike in coronavirus cases.
Many among the police estimate of 35,000 at the rally had already left for home when the demonstration descended into violence as several hundred people started smashing cars and setting garbage bins ablaze, while police responded with tear gas and water cannon.
Three police officials and one demonstrator were injured in the clashes. In addition, 42 protesters were detained and two were arrested and charged in the violence that followed the march, police said.
In Croatia, thousands of people protested in the capital Zagreb, holding Croatian flags, nationalist and religious symbols, and anti-vaccination banners.
Thousands also gathered in Zurich to protest against the idea of a Swiss COVID certificate, which could become compulsory for entry to some public places. Unlike previous protests in the capital city of Bern, the weekend’s demonstrations were peaceful.
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Austria’s new lockdown comes a week after a restrictions were imposed on those who are not vaccinated but the government has now said it will make vaccination compulsory from the beginning of February.
Just 65% of the population has been fully vaccinated.