Austria ends lockdown on unvaccinated as pressure on hospitals eases

FILE PHOTO: General COVID-19 lockdown in Austria

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria's lockdown for people not fully vaccinated against the coronavirus will end on Monday because the pressure on hospitals has eased, the government said on Wednesday.

New daily coronavirus infections are rising, driven by the extremely contagious Omicron variant. They hit a new record above 30,000 on Wednesday, Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein told a news conference, adding that they would peak in the next two weeks at around 35,000 to 40,000.

The occupancy rate of hospital and intensive-care beds, however, has been falling.

"We came to the conclusion that the lockdown for unvaccinated people in Austria is only justifiable in the event of the threat of an imminent over-burdening of intensive-care capacity," Mueckstein told a news conference, adding experts no longer saw it as necessary.

Since Nov. 15 those not vaccinated against the coronavirus have been under lockdown, meaning they are only allowed to leave their homes for a limited number of reasons such as shopping for essentials or working. The measure, which was suspended over Christmas, has been criticised as very difficult to enforce.

While that restriction on their movement will be lifted, the unvaccinated will still be barred from taking part in a range of leisure activities including eating in restaurants or shopping for non-essential items as part of government efforts to increase the vaccination rate, which is among the lowest in western Europe.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Barbara Lewis)