People wait in a long queue to get vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus in a public bus, that drives around the city and offers the vaccination without appointments and for free in Vienna, on November 15, 2021. Image Credit: AP

BERLIN: Austria took what its leader called the “dramatic” step on Monday of implementing a nationwide lockdown for unvaccinated people who haven’t recently had COVID-19, perhaps the most drastic of a string of measures being taken by European governments to get a massive regional resurgence of the coronavirus under control.

The move, which took effect at midnight, prohibits people 12 years old and older who haven’t been vaccinated or recently recovered from leaving their homes except for basic activities such as working, grocery shopping, going for a walk _ or getting vaccinated.

The lockdown is initially being imposed until November 24 in the Alpine country of 8.9 million. It doesn’t apply to children under 12 because they cannot yet officially get vaccinated — though the capital, Vienna, on Monday opened up vaccinations for under-12s as part of a pilot, and reported high demand.

Officials have said that police patrols will be stepped up and unvaccinated people can be fined up to 1,450 euros ($1,660) if they violate the lockdown.

“We really didn’t take this step lightly and I don’t think it should be talked down,’’ Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg told Oe1 radio. “This a dramatic step — about 2 million people in this country are affected ... what we are trying is precisely to reduce contact between the unvaccinated and vaccinated to a minimum, and also contact between the unvaccinated.’’

“My aim is very clearly to get the unvaccinated to get themselves vaccinated and not to lock down the vaccinated,” Schallenberg added. “In the long term, the way out of this vicious circle we are in — and it is a vicious circle, we are stumbling from wave to lockdown, and that can’t carry on ad infinitum — is only vaccination.’’

About 65% of the population is fully vaccinated, a rate that Schallenberg has described as “shamefully low.’’

Authorities are concerned about rising infections and increasing pressure on hospitals. Austria on Sunday recorded 849.2 new cases per 100,000 residents over the previous seven days. Its situation is far worse than that of neighbouring Germany, where case rates on Monday hit the latest in a string of records, with 303 new cases per 100,000 residents over seven days.

Access to public places in Berlin restricted

Berlin on Monday became the latest of several German states to limit access to restaurants, cinemas, museums and concerts to people who have been vaccinated or recently recovered — shutting out unvaccinated people who have tested negative. Under-18s are exempted.

On Thursday, the German parliament is due to vote on a new legal framework for coronavirus restrictions drawn up by the parties that are expected to form the country’s next government. Those plans are reportedly being beefed up to allow tougher contact restrictions than originally envisioned.

Germany has struggled to bring new momentum to its vaccination campaign, with just over two-thirds of the population fully vaccinated, and is trying to ramp up booster shots.

Partial lockdown in Netherlands

To Germany’s west, the Netherlands on Saturday night implemented a partial lockdown that is due to run for at least three weeks, forcing bars and restaurants to close at 8pm. In the northern city of Leeuwarden, hundreds of young people gathered in a central square, setting off fireworks and holding flares, before riot police moved in to push protesters out.

In Austria, the leader of the far-right opposition Freedom Party vowed to combat the new restrictions by “all parliamentary and legal means we have available.’’ Herbert Kickl said in a statement that ”2 million people are being practically imprisoned without having done anything wrong.’’

The government’s next move, however, may well be to tighten the screws.

Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein told ORF television that he wants to discuss further measures on Wednesday, and said that one proposal on the table is limits on going out at night that would also apply to the vaccinated.

Schallenberg sounded a more cautious note. “Of course I don’t rule out sharpening’’ the measures, he said, but he indicated that he doesn’t expect restrictions on bars and the like at present. He said further measures could include requiring full medical masks in more places, more working from home and requiring vaccinated people to get tested before going to events.