Covid in Europe: Czechs and Slovaks target unvaccinated as Austria locks down

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Covid In Europe: Czechs And Slovaks Target Unvaccinated As Austria Locks Down Covid In Europe: Czechs And Slovaks Target Unvaccinated As Austria Locks Down
Demonstrators light flares during a rally held by Austria's far-right Freedom Party against the measures taken to curb Covid. Photo: Getty Images.
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By Francois Murphy and Maria Sheahan

The Czech Republic and Slovakia banned unvaccinated people from hotels, pubs, hairdressers and most public events from Monday after Covid-19 cases filled hospital intensive-care wards, and were mulling harsher steps to stem the resurgent pandemic.

The central European neighbours both acted a step behind Austria, which first set restrictions on unvaccinated people but went for a full lockdown on Monday as the region became the world's latest Covid-19 hotspot.

Austria has become the first country in western Europe to reimpose lockdown since vaccines were rolled out, shutting non-essential shops, bars and cafes as surging caseloads raised the spectre of a second straight winter in deep freeze for the continent.

Germany will also need tighter restrictions to control a record-setting wave of infections, outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted as saying, remarks that erased gains on European stock markets and sent bond yields down.

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With Europe once again the epicentre of the global pandemic that first prompted lockdowns in March 2020, new restrictions and vaccine mandates are expected to spread nearly two years after the first Covid-19 case was identified in China.

"We are in a highly dramatic situation. What is in place now is not sufficient," Ms Merkel told leaders of her conservative CDU party in a meeting, according to two participants, confirming comments first reported by Bloomberg.

'Intensively' looking at lockdown

Slovakia has signalled it could indeed echo Austria with a three-week lockdown for all, as prime minister Eduard Heger said he was "intensively" looking at the possibility, to be discussed in the cabinet later this week.

"The prime minister is aware it is necessary to resolve the situation immediately so we can have a calmer Christmas and be able to relax measures in view of the coming tourism season," Mr Heger's office said in a statement.

Both Slovakia and the Czech Republic took the decision to target unvaccinated people last week to encourage inoculations, as daily infections hit new records with vaccination rates lagging behind most European Union peers.

The unvaccinated make up nearly 70 per cent of serious coronavirus illnesses in the Czech Republic and around 80 per cent in Slovakia, according to government data form the two countries - although vaccination, while it greatly reduces the risk of serious illness or death, does not prevent transmission of the virus.

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Slovakia has the bloc's third-lowest full vaccination rate at 45.3 per cent, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), while 58 per cent of the Czech population was fully vaccinated, also below the EU average of 65.5 per cent.

Christmas markets

Many businesses fear a return to harsher restrictions like a year ago when most shops and restaurants had to close doors in the run-up to Christmas holidays.

"I believe that we are going into another lockdown... so this Christmas will be very similar to the last one," Jakub Olbert said at one of the seasonal markets in Prague that he organises and supplies.

He said the number of vendors at other Christmas markets in the Czech capital had already been halved by distancing requirements, hitting business.

The Czech government was due on Monday to discuss calling a state of emergency, allowing it to order medical students to help at strained hospitals.

Under new Czech measures, only people who have been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 in the past six months can visit restaurants, services or events like sports games.

'Vaccinated, recovered or dead'

Meanwhile in Germany, health minister Jens Spahn, urgently calling on people to get vaccinated, said he was certain that by the end of the winter everyone in the country would be "vaccinated, recovered or dead".

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In many parts of Germany, including its capital Berlin, Christmas markets opened for the first time in two years on Monday. But states bordering Austria and the Czech Republic that have Germany's highest case numbers have introduced stricter rules, cancelling Christmas markets, barring the unvaccinated from restaurants and bars and imposing curfews at night.

In Austria, the return of severe government restrictions brought about 40,000 protesters to Vienna's streets on Saturday, and protests also turned to violence in Belgium over the weekend.

Police and protesters clashed in the streets of Brussels on Sunday, with officers firing water cannon and tear gas at demonstrators throwing rocks and smoke bombs.

In cities across the Netherlands, riots broke out as police clashed with mobs of angry youths who set fires and threw rocks to protest at Covid-19 restrictions. More than 100 people were arrested during three nights of violence, which saw police open fire at rioters in Rotterdam on Friday.

In France, proof of vaccination or a recent negative test is required to go to restaurants and cinemas. President Emmanuel Macron said last week more lockdowns were not needed.

But violence erupted last week on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe amid protests over Covid-19 restrictions, such as the mandatory vaccines for health workers.

Police have arrested at least 38 people and dozens of stores have been looted. Mr Macron said on Monday the protests had created a "very explosive" situation as a general strike entered a second week on Monday and many stores remained shuttered.

The number of people being treated in intensive care units for Covid-19 in France went up by 67 over 24 hours, to 1,409, that figure going above the 1,400 limit for the first time since September 30th. The total number of patients hospitalised for the disease increased by 300 versus Sunday, at 8,338.

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