Europe toughens rules for unvaccinated as fourth COVID wave swells
By Jason Horowitz
As temperatures drop and coronavirus infections spike across Europe, some countries are introducing increasingly targeted restrictions against the unvaccinated who are driving another wave of contagion and putting economic recoveries, public health and an eventual return to prepandemic freedoms at risk.
On Monday, Austria set a new bar for such measures in the West. Facing a 134% increase in cases in the last two weeks, the Austrian government cracked down on its unvaccinated population over age 12, restricting their movement to traveling for work, school, buying groceries and medical care.
“Our task as the federal government is to protect the people of Austria,” Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg told a news conference Sunday. “We are fulfilling this responsibility.”
Austria’s step fit a pattern of governments across Europe passing rules to make life harder for the unvaccinated, with the goal of motivating people to get a shot. Taken together, the measures are a bleak and clear sign that a virus that however fleetingly seemed a piece of European history was still very much part of its present and future.
The World Health Organization warned recently that Europe was once again the epicenter of the pandemic and that half a million people on the continent could die from COVID in the next few months. Europe reported a 10% increase in deaths and a 7% increase in new infections in the first week of November, compared to the previous week.
Hospitalizations and deaths were mostly in Eastern Europe, but the new wave threatened the economic recoveries and Christmas vacations across the continent. A return to normalcy predicated on the success of vaccination campaigns was being increasingly threatened by the unvaccinated, who offered the virus room to run.
That is why governments all around Europe have been taking the extra step of explicitly singling out the unvaccinated. The new rules in Austria amounted to “a massive reduction in contacts between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated,” professor Eva Schernhammer of the Medical University of Vienna told the BBC.
Similarly, in Germany, which has been besieged by a resurgent virus, the incoming government has said it will impose stricter rules against unvaccinated people, including mandating that they obtain a negative coronavirus test before traveling on buses or trains. In France, booster shots will become requisite for people 65 and older hoping to secure a health pass. And in Italy, vaccination, recent recovery from the virus or frequent negative swabs are required to work.
Nevertheless, some European leaders considered Austria’s new measure a step too far.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, which has suffered a rash of new cases in recent weeks, kept his resistance to mask mandates and health passes.
“Our friends on the Continent have been forced to respond with various degrees of new restrictions, from full lockdowns, to lockdowns for the unvaccinated, to restrictions on business opening hours and restrictions on social gatherings,” Johnson said Monday, but he doubled down on vaccinations, saying boosters would be offered to those ages 40 and older, and second doses made available to those ages 16 and 17 who have so far been allowed one. He said he worried about “storm clouds that are gathering over the Continent.”
In Germany, which has suffered a dizzying increase in cases in part because of a slow rollout of booster vaccines, officials had hoped that charging people for swab tests would motivate them to get vaccinated. But they will once again try and keep closer tabs on the virus by making free coronavirus tests available to all adults in the country. The government has suggested that those tests could be required to enter events and certain venues, even for the vaccinated.
Over the weekend, the three parties joining to form Germany’s next governing coalition agreed to impose stricter rules against unvaccinated people, including mandating that they obtain a negative coronavirus test before traveling on buses or trains, as infection rates reach new highs.
Some German states are introducing stricter mask mandates and requiring vaccination instead of negative tests for entry into venues.
Infections have also broken out in northern Italy, on the Austrian and Slovenian borders. Italy, with a vaccination rate over 80% for people over 12, already has among the toughest restrictions in Europe through a health pass that requires vaccination or constant swabs for employees to work.
The Italian government in recent days announced that taxis can only carry two people, unless they are family members, and allowed health authorities or railway police to stop trains if passengers had symptoms that could be associated with the coronavirus.
“I am worried about an increase in infections ahead of Christmas,” Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s foreign minister, said at a conference Sunday, adding that the stringency of the health pass was designed to keep businesses open and that the country would do everything necessary to stay open.
“Look at the other European states,” Di Maio added, “which have a lower vaccination level than us, they are inserting a series of measures that are much more restrictive than ours.”
Greece this month introduced rules requiring unvaccinated people to present a negative rapid or PCR test in order to gain access to public services, banks, shops and hair salons. They needed to do the same to go inside cafes and restaurants, prompting a 24-hour strike planned for Tuesday to protest the new measures. Greek authorities have said they are also considering further measures against the unvaccinated.
France has announced that masks will be required again in primary schools and that it would tighten restrictions in the face of rising cases, with the number of daily new infections now more than doubled from early October, from about 4,000 to over 8,000.
People over 65 will as of Dec. 15 need to get a booster to keep eligibility for the health pass that allows them into restaurants, museums and long-distance trains.
Countries that had succeeded in vaccinating large percentages of their populations instead relaxed restrictions. Portugal, which has vaccinated nearly 90% of its population, on Oct. 1 reduced its health pass requirement and lifted nearly all of its coronavirus restrictions. Spain, which has hit an 80% vaccination rate, does not require a health pass.
But the trend seems very much to be toward tightening as winter approaches and the virus spreads.