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Austria enters lockdown as COVID infections rise

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

No fifth wave of coronavirus infections. Well, at least that is the hope of the Austrian government as the country enters a nationwide lockdown now. On Friday it became the first country in Europe to institute a vaccine mandate. And today it was the first to initiate a nationwide lockdown during this surge, despite protests against the new restrictions. Joining us now to talk more about all of this is journalist Kerry Skyring in Vienna.

Welcome.

KERRY SKYRING: Thank you.

CHANG: So can you just walk us through exactly what this lockdown entails and how it compares to earlier ones in Austria?

SKYRING: The restrictions are very similar to those that have applied during earlier lockdowns in that, from the very start of the pandemic, you may go out to buy food, go to the doctor, do official business but not for any other reason except exercise - so very restrictive. In fact, no cafes, no restaurants are open. Normal retail shops are not open. What's different this time? There is a limit placed on it, and it specifies that this lockdown applies to everyone up until 20 days have passed. And after that, it's only the non-vaccinated who will be subjected to lockdown. That's the government's statement at the moment. So this is quite different. They're making a specific differentiation between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated as far as the end of this lockdown goes.

CHANG: OK. Well, COVID cases are, I understand, at a new high and still on the rise. Can you just talk about what the latest numbers look like there?

SKYRING: Yes. In the last 24 hours, about 1,800 people were infected. It's been rising quite dramatically. And that's in a country with a population of about 9 million people. But across the country, it varies. Vienna is a much lower infection rate. States of Austria like Salzburg and Upper Austria have a much higher - about double the rate.

CHANG: And what does the vaccination rate look like in Austria at the moment?

SKYRING: We have about 70% of the population, fully vaccinated about 66%. But it's still not where Austria would expect it to be. I mean, this is a country which prides itself on its health system, a very well-organized health system and on observance of the rules. But for some reason, you have around 25% of the population who are very resistant to having vaccination.

CHANG: That's quite interesting. Well, in response to these rising infections, this is now the fourth time the Austrian government has made the decision to initiate a lockdown. Can you just talk about how people in the country have been responding to these new measures? How unpopular have they been?

SKYRING: Very unpopular. We saw demonstrations on the weekend in Vienna with 40,000 people coming up to demonstrate, some of them demonstrating against vaccination but many of them just not wanting another lockdown. They are really tired of these lockdowns. Just to give a bit of context to this, it came just as the Christmas markets were opening up. So around Vienna at this time of year around Austria, these great Christmas markets where people gather to buy gifts and drink gluhwein and buy food and mix with their friends in the open - in the cold but in the open. So they were open for not more than 48 hours, and they've had to close down.

So there is also another issue, and that is back in September the government promised that there would be no more lockdowns for the vaccinated. And here we are some six, eight weeks later, and they've had to break that promise because the numbers were rising so rapidly and the hospitals were becoming overloaded. So government trust is at something of a low as a result of these broken promises.

CHANG: That is journalist Kerry Skyring joining us from Vienna.

Thank you very, very much for speaking with us today.

SKYRING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.