Police in Austria have begun carrying out routine checks on commuters to ensure compliance with a nationwide “lockdown for the unvaccinated”, as the Alpine country tries to get on top of one of the most rapidly rising infection rate in Europe.
The restrictions, which came into effect on Monday morning, will affect almost 2 million Austrian citizens aged 12 and older who have so far declined to get a jab against Covid-19, of which the 356,000 people who have been vaccinated only once can be released from lockdown if they can show a negative PCR test.
Those who are found to be in breach of the rules face fines between €500 and €3,600.
“It can happen anytime and anywhere,” the interior minister, Karl Nehammer of the Austrian People’s party, said of the police checks. “Every citizen has to expect to be checked.”
But a long list of exceptions has led critics to warn that the partial lockdown will be difficult to enforce: unvaccinated people will still be able to go to work with a negative test result, do essential shopping and outdoor physical exercise, meet their partner or other select individuals, and “satisfy their basic religious needs”.
Schoolchildren, who are tested regularly, are also exempt from the lockdown.
The measures, details of which were announced on Sunday by the chancellor, Alexander Schallenberg, are provisionally designed to last for 10 days, though the government said it would discuss potential further restrictions on Wednesday, such as a nighttime curfew that would also apply to those vaccinated.
“My aim is very clear: to get the unvaccinated to get vaccinated, not to lock up the unvaccinated,”Schallenberg told ORF radio station.
The far-right Freedom party has said it will seek legal action against the lockdown measures and announced plans to organise a protest in Vienna on Saturday.
Over the past week, Austria has recorded almost 840 new cases per 100,000 people, the highest infection rate in western Europe and the highest recorded in the country since the start of the pandemic.
At 63%, the country’s vaccination rate is also the lowest in western Europe, though only a few percentage points lower than the 67% of the population fully vaccinated in Britain.
The UK, which has so far declined to reintroduce any curbs on social movement, has been recording a similar number of weekly Covid deaths relative to its population.
In Germany, the parties of the likely next government have also signalled they would be prepared to reintroduce some restrictions on social gatherings and checks of vaccine status or test results on public transport in an attempt to curb spiking infection rates.