Austria will be the first country in Western Europe to reintroduce a full COVID-19 lockdown, it said Friday, as neighboring Germany warned it could follow suit and send shockwaves through financial markets worried about the economic downturn.
Europe has once again become the epicenter of the pandemic, accounting for half of global cases and deaths. A fourth wave of infections has plunged Germany, Europe’s largest economy, into a national emergency, Health Minister Jens Spahn said, warning that vaccinations alone will not reduce the number of cases.
Austria said that in addition to the lockdown, it would require the entire population to be vaccinated from 1 February. Both decisions angered many in a country where skepticism of state mandates affecting individual liberties is high, encouraged by the right-wing extremist Freedom Party, the third largest in parliament.
Party leader Herbert Kickl posted a picture on Facebook with the inscription: “From today, Austria is a dictatorship.” The party is planning a protest on Saturday, but Kickl is unable to attend because he has tested positive for COVID-19.
About two-thirds of those eligible in Austria are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in Western Europe. Its infections are among the highest in Europe, with a seven-day incidence of 991 per. 100,000 people.
“We have not succeeded in convincing enough people to be vaccinated,” Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said at a news conference, saying the shutdown would begin on Monday and the requirement to be vaccinated on February 1.
“It hurts that such measures still need to be taken.”
Asked if Germany could rule out a full Austrian-style lockdown, Spahn said: “We are now in a situation – even if this produces a news alert – where we can not rule anything out.
“We are in a national emergency,” he told a news conference.
The threat of new lockdowns comes as optimism grows around experimental drugs developed by Pfizer and Merck, which reduce the chance of hospitalization and serious illness, more weapons in the world’s fight against the virus.
On Friday, the EU Drugs Authority said it was reviewing data on Pfizer’s COVID-19 pill to help member states decide on rapid adoption prior to any formal EU-wide approval.
Threatening lockdowns weighed on a number of financial market sectors on Friday, pushing equities and oil down and raising the dollar.
“We expect targeted action (against COVID-19) across some countries mainly according to the health situation, but other factors, such as domestic policy situations, will be relevant,” Oxford Economics analysts said in a note.
“And while it may take some time before political consensus can be reached in other countries, it is clear that the trend is reversed.”
As cases re-emerge, a number of European governments have begun to reintroduce limits on activity, ranging from Austria’s full closure to a partial shutdown in the Netherlands and restrictions on the unvaccinated in parts of Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Niels Van Regenmortel, coordinator of intensive care units at the ZNA Stuivenberg Hospital in Antwerp, said that there is an increasing risk that hospitals in Belgium will have to resort to triage, while intensive care units will fill up in the midst of soaring COVID-19 numbers, and calls on the government to limit nightlife.
Whether countries choose to lock down again depends on a wide range of factors, including vaccination rates, mask mandates and the extent to which booster shots are made available.
Germany has said further measures will be decided based on when hospitalization rates reach certain thresholds. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has made it clear that he believes high levels of vaccinations should be enough to avoid future shutdowns.
The UK, with a higher number of infections than most countries in Europe, is rolling out third shots – or boosters – to offset declining protection from the first two and help keep the economy open.
Although the new measures across Europe are not seen to hit the economy as much as the complete shutdowns last year, analysts say they could weigh on the recovery in the last quarter, especially if they hurt the retail and hospitality sector over Christmas.
However, a full lockdown in Germany would be more serious.
“With Germany … introducing new restrictions, all thoughts that the vaccines would give way to a more normal Christmas period seem to have gone up in smoke for now, at least in Europe,” said Michael Hewson, chief market analyst. at CMC Markets UK.
“Though there is a nagging fear, this could wave beyond the region.” The pressure on intensive care units in Germany has not yet reached its peak, Spahn said, urging people to reduce contacts to help break the wave. “How Christmas will be, I dare not say. I can only say that it is up to us, ”he added.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday that Germany would limit large sections of public life in areas where hospitals are becoming dangerously full of COVID-19 patients to those who have either been vaccinated or have recovered from the disease.
“It is clear from our experience in England and from what is happening across Europe that while vaccines do a lot of the heavy lifting … other interventions are needed to prevent the number of cases from increasing,” said Lawrence Young. , virologist and professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick.
“Less mask wear, more mixing indoors due to colder weather and declining immunity also contribute to the high incidence of cases across Europe.”
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