Over the last couple of days, Austria has announced one of the most dramatic Coronavirus policies yet. Its government has decided to put two million citizens, who haven’t been fully vaccinated against the virus, into their own lockdown.
The new rule applies to everyone over the age of 12 and means they are only allowed to leave home for specific reasons, such as working and buying food. Already the police have carried out routine searches to check for people’s vaccine status and can fine them up to €500 should they not provide proof of one. The lockdown is expected to last 10 days before being reviewed.
Proponents of this policy will argue that Austria has had no choice but to introduce such a measure. It has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe and, at the same time, cases are rapidly rising. Health experts believe it won’t be long until hospitals are full. What else is the government meant to do, they will say, which has already barred unvaccinated citizens from restaurants, hairdressers and cinemas.
But this is an extreme step – which shows a troubling complacency around what powers the state should have, under the justification of Covid. If Austria or another country had announced such a policy in 2019, one imagines there’d have been unanimous bewilderment – and maybe even anger. Nowadays, however, there is a shrugging of shoulders when politicians set new rules; a feeling of “business as usual”.
Dividing the nation in two to counter a health threat is not only draconian, but contradicts the position many leaders took during the pandemic, in which susceptibility to the virus was never used as a determinant of freedoms. The Great Barrington Declaration was famously criticised, among other reasons, for advocating “Focused Protection”; the idea that society should be separated, with the high risk population shielded and the low risk released “to live their lives normally”.
This was seen as unacceptable, though. “We’re all in this together”, goes the logic. But this could similarly be extended to the unvaccinated, many of whom will be low risk and have stayed at home to protect others for long periods of time.
Unfortunately Austria’s lockdown is no anomaly in a world of ever-extreme Covid measures. Latvia, for instance, has banned lawmakers who refuse to have a jab from voting on laws and participating in debates until the middle of next year. They will also have a pay cut. Penalities, as opposed to engagement, are now seen as the primary way to deal with the vaccine hesitant.
Similarly, Queensland, in Australia, plans to bar unvaccinated people from restaurants, pubs and sports events from December 17. After the country had one of the world’s longest lockdowns, only to find – for all the misery it inflicted on its citizens – this had no significant difference as the Delta variant of Coronavirus took hold, you’d think policymakers would think twice about further curtailing people’s freedoms.
Having recently been to Berlin and Paris, which have more Covid measures than the UK, what disappoints me more than individual restrictions is how quickly people accept them. “This is the new normal”, seems to be the attitude. The public have become apathetic, with no expectation that bureaucracy and rules can be reversed.
Austria’s new policy, at least, spells out that we are on a spectrum of Covid policies – ranging from Sweden’s relatively relaxed one to house arrest. I know which end of the spectrum I’d rather be on.
As I have written before for ConservativeHome, in years to come the UK’s own attitude to Coronavirus – which has been called callous – could age much better than people think. We may, in fact, have struck one of the best balances between the Covid “hawks” and “doves”, as they were once referred to.
Austria’s use of such an over-the-top measure – it’s worth pointing out that 65 per cent of its population is fully vaccinated, so hardly a disaster – should really be called out by the international community.
But when some leaders ask their own citizens to show a vaccine passport for some chips in a restaurant, you can see the difficulties they will have in criticising, let alone noticing, anything more drastic. The UK and Sweden, for all the accusations that they are uncaring, may find they have a better platform on which to stand.