Austria, Germany see new restrictions on the unvaccinated as Covid-19 cases rise

As the number of cases of Covid-19 hit new record highs, governments in Europe and elsewhere are beginning to put targeted limits on the movements of the unvaccinated. Are these measures justified or do they unfairly restrict people’s freedom of movement?

A medical staffperson holds a vaccination certificate with a registered Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccination at the Favoriten Clinic in Vienna, Austria on December 27, 2020.
A medical staffperson holds a vaccination certificate with a registered Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccination at the Favoriten Clinic in Vienna, Austria on December 27, 2020. © Georg Hochmuth, AFP

Austria is about to take perhaps the most decisive step. Parliament is expected to debate a measure this weekend that would mandate a lockdown for people who have not received two doses of the vaccine or recovered from the virus. The move is in response to a rapid rise in the number of cases.

“The aim is clear: We want on Sunday to give the green light for a nationwide lockdown for the unvaccinated,” Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg told a press conference on Friday.

“A lockdown for the unvaccinated means one cannot leave one's home unless one is going to work, shopping (for essentials), stretching one's legs – namely exactly what we all had to suffer through in 2020," Schallenberg said, referring to three national lockdowns last year.

The states of Upper Austria and Salzburg have already approved lockdown measures for the unvaccinated, slated to come into effect on Monday.

The targeted lockdowns would be in addition to measures that came into effect on November 8 barring people who aren’t fully vaccinated from entering many public places, such as restaurants, bars, hairdressers, hotels, gatherings of more than 25 people and, perhaps most painfully for many, ski lifts. The new rules will be phased in over four weeks, during which proof of a first vaccination dose and a negative PCR test will be sufficient for access.

Only 64 percent of the population in Austria is fully vaccinated, the lowest rate of any western European country, apart from Liechtenstein, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. The EU-wide average is 67 percent.

Not everyone thinks the restrictions are warranted. “There are people who think there is no justification for limiting freedom of movement,” said Merten Reglitz, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. “Others think [the response] is disproportionate, that the danger is not severe enough … that’s one side of the coin.”

On the flip side is the argument that we have responsibilities toward those around us. “Even though we have freedoms we do not have the freedom to harm other people,” Reglitz said. “That’s why the state could be seen to be morally justified in posing restrictions on people.”

What's essential is that the response be proportionate. Imposing such restrictions in the summer, for example, when the rate of infection was low, would have been disproportionate, Reglitz said. Now that intensive care units are filling up, the calculation has changed.

This seems to be the conclusion of governments in other countries as well.

‘2G’ restrictions in Germany’s Saxony and coming soon to Berlin

On Monday, the German state of Saxony put so-called 2G rules in place, which effectively exclude people who choose not to be vaccinated from many areas of public life. Under the new rules, only people who are fully vaccinated or who have recovered from Covid-19 in the past six months are permitted to eat inside restaurants or go to clubs or bars. A negative test will no longer get one through the door. Only children and those who have medical reasons for not being vaccinated are exempt from the new rule.

Berlin will also adopt 2G rules on November 15, and Brandenburg, Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria are expected to follow suit. 2G rules are already in force in some districts where Covid hospitalisations are particularly high. Similar proposals are being discussed for adoption on a national level and, if approved, would come into effect later this month.

Measures like these are not limited to Europe. New South Wales, Australia recently prohibited people over the age of 16 who are not fully vaccinated from visiting another person’s place of residence, except in limited circumstances. And the Singaporean government will no longer foot the bill for the treatment of those who are “unvaccinated by choice” and catch the virus.  

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