Austrians will go into a three-week coronavirus lockdown in response to stubbornly increasing case numbers and shrinking hospital capacity, the government announced on Saturday.
Starting on Tuesday and lasting until December 6, schools will switch to distance learning, most shops will be closed and a curfew will come into force, while people are asked to work from home.
“My urgent request for the next weeks is this: Don’t meet anyone! Every social contact is one too many,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told a press conference.
“It’s the only way we can salvage Christmas,” he said, offering hope that measures will be relaxed in time for the major holiday in late December.
A partial lockdown has been in place since early November, when restaurants, bars, tourism businesses and cultural venues were mostly shuttered, while high school students were told to study remotely. People were told to remain in their homes after 8 pm except for urgent business or to take exercise.
However, the daily number of new coronavirus cases has risen to around 7,000 in recent days, while the seven-day number of new infections per 100,000 people stands above 500.
More than a quarter of Austria’s intensive care capacity is already filled, which is close to the limit where doctors start a triage system to decide which patients with severe Covid-19 cases or other illnesses get intensive care, and which do not.
“That’s why we need to pull the emergency brake,” Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said. “This is our only chance, our last chance to prevent a hospital collapse.”
The new rules will resemble regulations under the country’s first full lockdown, imposed in March.
This means that all retailers and personal service providers such as hairdressers will have to close, except for grocery and drug stores.
The government plans to compensate shuttered retailers with around 40 per cent of the revenues they made during the same period last year, while service and hospitality businesses get 80 per cent.
Any schools that remain open will switch to remote learning, however, pupils whose parents cannot care for them during the day and those without IT equipment will be allowed to go to school.
People will only be allowed to leave their homes for essential activities including going to work, grocery shopping or visiting relatives.
The school lockdown runs counter to advice from the government’s Covid-19 medical advisory council, which had said this week that classes should continue with additional measures such as virus testing and stricter mask rules.
Kurz argued that the step is necessary because the share of novel coronavirus infections that can be traced back to the transmitter has dropped to 33 per cent, indicating that the virus is circulating in all settings including schools.
Opposition parties slammed the government for allowing the situation to deteriorate to a second lockdown.
Social Democratic chief Pamela Rendi-Wagner, a former senior public health official, charged that the government had failed to expand its contact tracing teams and to improve its pandemic data gathering in recent months.
“Now all people in Austria have to foot the bill for the government’s failure,” she told a press conference.
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