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Austria orders three-week lockdown to rein in surging coronavirus cases

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Austria on Saturday ordered a three-week lockdown in a last-ditch effort to bring surging coronavirus cases under control and relieve the stress on the health service in time for retailers to reopen in the run-up to Christmas.

The country had so far used a lighter touch in dealing with the second wave of cases than it did with the first outbreak, which it brought under control with a lockdown in the spring.

A nighttime curfew is in place from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. this month but shops are open; cafes, bars and restaurants are limited to take-away service; theatres and museums are closed.

Those measures have failed to stop infections from accelerating and Austria now has one of Europe’s highest infection rates. Daily new cases hit a record of 9,586 on Friday, nine times higher than at the peak of the first wave. 

The conservative-led government had called a lockdown a last resort, but it was left with no alternative to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. The new lockdown is due to start on Tuesday and end on Monday, Dec. 7.

“The next close to three weeks, two-and-a-half weeks, will be a very difficult time for us,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told a news conference.

The current nighttime curfew will become an all-day requirement to stay at home, with only some exceptions such as for shopping or exercise. Working from home should happen wherever possible, Kurz said, confirming details earlier reported by Reuters.

Non-essential shops will close, as will service providers such as hairdressers. Secondary schools have already switched to distance learning; primary schools and kindergartens will now follow suit but still provide childcare for those who need it.

“Our declared aim is for compulsory schools and shops to be the very first to reopen on Dec. 7 immediately after the lockdown,” Kurz said, adding: “The more thoroughly we implement this lockdown the shorter the time we will need it for.” 

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