Covid: Austrians who pass antigen test to be exempt from lockdown

Italy prepares for national lockdown over Christmas; Spanish minister warns of third wave

Austria is to enter a third lockdown from Boxing Day but will stage mass coronavirus tests in mid-January to determine who will be exempt from certain restrictions, the government announced on Friday.

Italy is preparing to outline new measures that could lead to a complete lockdown over the Christmas and new year period, while the Spanish government has warned of a possible “third wave” of infections.

Austria’s latest lockdown, which comes into effect on 26 December, will include daytime curfews, the closure of non-essential shops, and schools switching to remote learning from 7 to 15 January.

Mass antigen tests being offered on the weekend of 16 and 17 January will give people the opportunity to “test themselves free” of restrictions, according to the interior minister, Karl Nehammer.

Those who test negative will be able to attend sporting events, concerts or restaurants from 18 January. Those who refuse to take a test will be required to stay in lockdown mode for another week.

“We will have to carry out these tests for some time,” said the Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz. “We hope we can manage to gain control over this pandemic. I urge you to take the virus seriously. Currently at least 100 people are dying in Austria every day.”

Kurz said the aim was to continue testing the population on a weekly basis. Police will carry out spot checks on those attending cultural events after 18 January.

Austria entered its second, three-week lockdown on 3 November, which included the closure of hotels, restaurants and cultural institutions.

Media reports in Italy suggest the government is considering placing the whole country under a “red zone” lockdown on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, and then again between 31 December and 3 January.

Concerns that festivities could trigger a rise in infections also mean the country could again go into lockdown on 5 and 6 January, when Italy celebrates the feast of the Epiphany. Another option is an uninterrupted lockdown between 24 December and 6 January.

The measures could include extending the night-time curfew, banning non-essential movement and shutting all except for essential shops. Inter-regional travel is banned from 21 December. The measures will particularly hit the restaurant industry, which had been counting on a boost in Christmas trade.

Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, is expected to address the nation on Friday night. Francesco Boccia, the regional affairs minister, told Sky television: “We must make decisions to protect the fragile and elderly, even at the cost of approaching unpopularity. Each of use must spend Christmas in their own home. Those thinking about big get-togethers are wrong in a big way.”

Although the infection rate in Spain had dropped over recent weeks, it is creeping up once more, with the number of cases per 100,000 people passing the 200 mark on Wednesday.

“We could be at the beginning of a third wave if we don’t take the appropriate measures,” Spain’s health minister, Salvador Illa, told Catalunya Ràdio on Friday. “We need to react.”

While Spain remains in a state of emergency and subject to an overnight curfew, there are fears that the festive period could lead to a big rise in cases, even though gatherings have been limited to a maximum of between six and 10 people depending on the region.

Illa said the relaxation in November of some of the strict measures adopted by regional governments appeared to be driving the rise in infections. However, he ruled out a stringent lockdown similar to that imposed in the spring and early summer, saying: “The circumstance don’t call for a total lockdown – not now nor in the near future”. But should that change, “and should the epidemiological situation call for a lockdown, we’ll do it,” he said.

He called on people to exercise “maximum prudence” over the coming weeks and to abide by all the health guidelines. He said vaccinations would begin on 27 December, with doses being distributed to regional governments that day or the day before. The first round of vaccines will be given to health workers, staff and residents of care homes, and those with severe health problems.

Spain’s regional governments are liaising with the central government over the pandemic response but are each making their own plans for December and January.

The Madrid regional government, which is allowing bars and restaurants to remain open over Christmas and the new year, said on Friday it had taken the “very painful” decision to limit festive gatherings to six people.

The Catalan government has announced that no more than six people should gather in one place, although the cap will be set at 10 people on 24, 25, 26 and 31 December, and 1 and 6 January. From Monday, restaurants in the north-eastern region will be allowed to open only between 7.30am and 10am, and from 1pm until 3pm. To date, Spain has logged 1,785,421 coronavirus cases and 48,777 deaths.

In Sweden – where the government’s unorthodox pandemic strategy was criticised by King Carl XVI Gustaf this week – health authorities logged a new daily high in registered cases. There were 9,654 new cases, up from the previous high of 8,881 recorded on Thursday. Sweden registered 100 new deaths, taking the total to 7,993.

The prime minister, Stefan Lofven, said masks should be worn on public transport when social distancing was not possible, and he announced that the maximum number of people allowed to share a table at a restaurant would be limited to four from 24 December.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron remains in self-isolation in the official presidential residence at La Lanterne at Versailles after testing positive for Covid-19. Gabriel Attal, the government spokesperson, said Macron had “real symptoms … a cough, a fever and [he] is very fatigued”.

The Élysée’s chief doctor, Jean-Christophe Perrochon, a military medic who carried out the coronavirus test on the president on Thursday morning, is staying near Macron at Versailles and keeping an eye on him.

A source told AFP it was thought Macron was infected while attending a European summit in Brussels last week, where he spent 20 hours with other European leaders, including during a “working dinner … and a night of negotiations”.

Slovakia’s prime minister, Igor Matovič, who attended the summit last week with Macron, announced he had tested positive. Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez – who had lunch with Macron on Monday – tested negative for the virus but is self-isolating until 24 December. Portugal’s prime minister, António Costa, is also in voluntary quarantine.

• This article was amended on 20 December 2020 because in an earlier version, the section on Italy mistakenly referred to measures potentially including shutting all except for non-essential shops. This has been corrected to refer to essential shops.


Sam Jones in Madrid, Philip Oltermann in Berlin, Angela Giuffrida in Rome and Kim Willsher in Paris

The GuardianTramp

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