Protests against fresh restrictions turned ugly in one European city as the continent faces growing hostility amid spiralling Covid case numbers.
The Netherlands has turned into a “war zone” as protests against Covid-19 restrictions erupted into rioting, with police firing warning shots and using water cannons against violent demonstrators.
It comes as Europe faces yet another coronavirus wave and the threat of future lockdowns as it heads into the winter festive season.
And just as countries across the continent had been easing strict Covid measures, now the World Health Organisation (WHO) is calling for people to take up mask wearing again as infection numbers across Europe continue to rise.
Rioting grips the Netherlands
Last week, the Netherlands went back into a partial three-week lockdown in a bid to get a hold on surging Covid case numbers.
On Thursday last week, the country recorded 16,364 new cases – the highest number at any time during the pandemic.
Caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the government wanted to “deliver a hard blow to the virus”.
As part of the lockdown rules, bars, restaurants and supermarkets will have to close at 8pm, sports matches will be played in empty stadiums and people are urged to work from home where possible.
Stores selling non-essential items will have to close at 6pm.
Masks also must be worn in shops and on public transport.
“Tonight we have a very unpleasant message with very unpleasant and far-reaching decisions,” Mr Rutte said when announcing the lockdown.
In Rotterdam, residents angry at the new restrictions took to the streets, with the situation quickly descending into violence.
Demonstrators shouted slogans including “freedom”, threw rocks and fireworks, and set police cars on fire, while officers tried to quell the situation by using water cannons and firing warning shots.
“Four rioters were wounded when they were hit by bullets; they remain in hospital,” Dutch police said in a tweet. They added that 51 people had been arrested, with half of those under 18.
Describing the rioting as an “orgy of violence”, Rotterdam mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb said that “on a number of occasions the police felt it necessary to draw their weapons to defend themselves”.
Local political party Leefbaar Rotterdam condemned the violence in a tweet.
“The centre of our beautiful city has this evening transformed into a war zone,” it said. “Rotterdam is a city where you can disagree with things that happen but violence is never, never the solution.”
Covid has killed more than 18,600 people in the Netherlands.
The country, where nearly 85 per cent of adults are fully vaccinated, largely ended lockdown restrictions at the end of September.
Austria to make vaccination legal requirement
After previously announcing lockdown restrictions for unvaccinated people only, Austria has now gone a step further by becoming the first European country to make Covid vaccination a legal requirement.
It also announced a full nationwide lockdown to help curb spiralling infection numbers.
Details on how the vaccination mandate will be enforced are still being discussed by the government. The new law will begin from February next year.
The measure is in response to rising case numbers and low national vaccination levels.
More than one-third of Austria’s population is unvaccinated, and on Saturday there were 15,809 new cases – a record number for the country of 8.9 million people.
Admitting the vaccination mandate was a difficult decision to make, Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said Covid vaccination was “the only exit ticket we have to break this vicious circle”.
“It’s a problem for the whole society because even those that are vaccinated, if they don’t have access to an intensive care unit because they’re blocked by those who are not vaccinated and got sick, so then they are affected as well,” Mr Schallenberg told the BBC.
Around 40,000 people took to the streets of capital Vienna to protest the mandate, in largely peaceful demonstrations.
They waved slogans saying things like “no to vaccination” and “enough is enough”.
Some skirmishes broke out later on Saturday and at least five people were arrested, Austrian police said, while several others were written up for violations including failure to wear masks, and displaying stars like those the Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust.
The populist Freedom Party, which has opposed the government’s coronavirus restrictions over the past 18 months, helped organise Saturday’s protests.
“We are all Austrians, regardless of whether we are vaccinated or not vaccinated,” Udo Landbauer, a regional party leader, told the crowd at a rally in Vienna.
“We have rights, and we will continue to be loud until we get our basic rights back.”
Case numbers refuse to budge in UK
Rising Covid numbers in the UK are worrying leaders, as they try to avoid sending the country into yet another lockdown.
The UK recorded 44,242 new coronavirus cases on Friday as numbers refuse to fall.
“I am seeing the storm clouds gathering over parts of the European continent,” Boris Johnson said last week.
“We have been here before and we remember what happens when a wave starts rolling in.
“The UK has built in a huge amount of protection thanks to the vaccine rollout.
“What I’m saying today is the urgency of getting that booster jab is more evident than ever.
“History shows we cannot afford to be complacent.”
The situation has echoes of last year when the British government had to “cancel Christmas” amid surging infections, despite having previously announced the country would open up so that people could celebrate the festive holiday with their loved ones.
The government has consistently said it has no plans for another lockdown for England. However, Plan B – where extra Covid restrictions could be introduced – may include mandatory Covid passports for some indoor venues, compulsory face coverings in certain indoor settings and advice to work from home.
‘Lockdown for the unvaccinated’ in Czech Republic and Slovakia
Countries including the Czech Republic and Slovakia have also announced fresh restrictions on unvaccinated people as record infection rates are recorded across the continent.
The governments hope that by implementing the restrictions, it will prompt people to get the Covid vaccine.
Only people who are vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 in the past six months can go out to restaurants and other events in Czech Republic from Monday.
Slovakia took a similar step, with Prime Minister Eduard Heger calling the move a “lockdown for the unvaccinated”.
Both countries also require Covid testing at workplaces.
More than 31,000 people have died of Covid in Czech Republic since the pandemic began.
Case numbers are currently spiking with a record number of 22,585 infections counted last Wednesday.
‘National emergency’ in Germany
Germany also hit a new high in its virus case numbers last week, recording more than 65,000 cases on Wednesday.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has said a fourth wave of Covid is “hitting us with full force”.
Hospitals in Germany are already at full capacity and health workers are concerned that once these new case numbers translate into hospitalisations in the coming weeks, the health system will be completely overwhelmed.
Health Minister Jens Spahn described the situation as a “national emergency” and refused to rule out another national lockdown.
Lothar Wieler, head of German health agency the Robert Koch Institute, said: “We have never been as alarmed as we are now.”
In the meantime, parliament has passed new measures including limiting public transport only to those who have been vaccinated or tested, and not allowing unvaccinated people to attend restaurants, bars and other events, in another case of a European country introducing a “lockdown for the unvaccinated”.
Extraordinary measures “are necessary and justified,” German leaders said in a statement.
“We are in the midst of the fourth wave and have to deal with a dramatic situation and draw the needed conclusions,” Ms Merkel said.
WHO ‘very worried’ about Europe situation
Europe was the only region in the world where Covid-related deaths increased last week, according to WHO statistics.
The global health agency has said it is “very worried” as Europe battles the fresh wave of Covid-19 infections.
Speaking to the BBC, WHO regional director Dr Hans Kluge warned that 500,000 more deaths could be recorded by March unless urgent action is taken.
He said an increase in mask wearing could immediately help, as well as in increase in vaccine uptake.
“Covid-19 has become once again the number one cause of mortality in our region,” he told the BBC.
“We know what needs to be done.”
Dr Kluge said factors like the winter season, insufficient vaccine coverage and the dominance of the Delta variant were causing the European spread.
He called for increased vaccine uptake and the implementation of basic public health measures and new medical treatments to help fight the rise.
Dr Kluge said mandatory vaccination measures should be seen as a “last resort” but that it would be “very timely” to have a “legal and societal debate” about the issue.