Tens of thousands of people protested in Vienna on Saturday against coronavirus restrictions a day after Austria’s government announced a new lockdown and said vaccines would be made compulsory next year.
Whistling, clapping, blowing horns and banging drums, crowds streamed into Heroes’ Square in front of the Hofburg, the former imperial palace, on Saturday. Many waved Austrian and other flags and carried signs with slogans such as “no to vaccination”, “enough is enough” or “down with the fascist dictatorship”.
By mid-afternoon the crowds had swelled to about 35,000 people, according to police, and were marching down Vienna’s inner ring road before heading back towards the Hofburg.
A police spokesman said there had been fewer than 10 arrests for breaches of coronavirus restrictions and a ban on Nazi symbols.
Many Austrians are sceptical about vaccines, a view encouraged by the far-right Freedom party (FPÖ), the third-biggest force in parliament.
With daily infections still setting records even after a lockdown was imposed on the unvaccinated this week, the government said on Friday it would put the country back in lockdown from Monday and make it compulsory to get vaccinated from 1 February.
The FPÖ had already been planning a show of force in Vienna on Saturday when Friday’s announcement fired up its base and prompted its leader, Herbert Kickl, to say: “As of today, Austria is a dictatorship.”
Kickl, who announced earlier this week that he had tested positive for Covid and had to stay in isolation at home, made an appearance via video. He denounced what he called “totalitarian” measures from a government “that believes it should think and decide for us”.
“We are not in favour of our government’s measures,” said one protester who was part of a group with tin foil on their heads and toilet brushes in their hands. Like most who spoke to the media, they declined to give their names.
Vaccinations in Austria have plateaued at one of the lowest rates in western Europe and hospitals in heavily hit states have said their intensive care units are reaching capacity. Average daily deaths have tripled in recent weeks.