Austria lifts ‘lockdown of the unvaccinated’ as Europe slowly opens up

European countries begin to ease curbs with hospital admissions not rising in line with record Covid cases

Shoppers in Vienna

Austria has lifted its “lockdown of the unvaccinated”, Switzerland is gearing up for a “turbo” reopening and Germany’s finance minister has demanded an end date for Covid curbs as more countries prepare to ease pandemic controls.

It follows the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and France, who last week began to take steps to return to a semblance of normal life, with the Danish government declaring Covid-19 “should no longer be categorised as a socially critical disease” after 31 January.

Although infections, driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, are still hitting record highs, data continues to show hospital and intensive care admissions are not surging in line with cases.

Austria’s chancellor, Karl Nehammer, said that from next Saturday, shops and restaurants would be able to stay open until midnight and the maximum number of people able to participate in events would rise from 25 to 50.

The country this week also became the first EU member state to make vaccination legally compulsory for adults under a law making those who refuse the jab liable for fines of up to €3,600 from mid-March, after an introductory phase.

Nehammer’s announcement came as Austria lifted a lockdown that – while proving difficult to enforce – has in principle barred those who have not been jabbed from leaving their home except for essential reasons since 15 November.

Restrictions on movement for the unvaccinated were lifted on Monday, although they remain barred from eating in restaurants or shopping for non-essential items as part of government efforts to boost western Europe’s lowest vaccination rate.

So-called “2G” rules banning those who have not been been vaccinated or recovered from the virus from non-essential shops will end on 12 February, with restaurants and tourist attraction also open to those with just a recent negative test a week later.

New daily coronavirus infections have been rising in Austria, but pressure on hospitals has eased and the wave is expected to reach a peak on around 7 February, the public health director, Katharina Reich, said.

In Switzerland, meanwhile, experts who studied both Swiss and German infection rates said Omicron was significantly more infectious, but seemingly less severe, than the Delta variant and was “unlikely to cause record numbers of admissions to ICUs”.

The finding followed a call last week by an alliance of Swiss businesses and rightwing parties to ease curbs – including working from home rules and a Covid pass needed to enter indoor public places such as restaurants, cinemas and gyms – that the group said were “disproportionate” and causing “enormous suffering” to companies.

Amid estimates that up to 40% of Swiss companies were experiencing staff shortages due to quarantine rules, the Swiss health minister, Alain Berset, has called for remaining restrictions to be lifted from 16 February, saying he wanted a “turbo” reopening of the economy.

Germany’s finance minister, Christian Lindner, also said the government should be laying the foundations for a smooth return to normal, arguing that even though the peak of the Omicron wave may still be several weeks away, business required a “planning horizon”.

Data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control on Monday suggested that the country, which is recording record high infections numbers, had failed to hit its goal of vaccinating 80% of the population before the end of January.

As of Monday, 75.8% of Germans had received at least one vaccine dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, putting the country behind other large European countries including Italy, France and Spain. German MPS are expected to vote next month on making vaccinations mandatory.

The World Health Organization has said it is “plausible” that the Omicron variant, which seems to cause less severe symptoms in the fully vaccinated, may signal the pandemic’s transition towards a more “manageable” phase and eventual endgame, but warned the situation remains unpredictable.

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