Thousands protest across Europe at coronavirus restrictions

Tens of thousands of protesters, many from far-right groups, marched through Vienna on Saturday after the Austrian government announced a nationwide lockdown beginning Monday to contain skyrocketing coronavirus infections.

emonstrations against restrictions also took place in Switzerland, Croatia, Italy and the Netherlands, a day after Dutch police opened fire on protesters and seven people were injured in rioting that erupted in Rotterdam.

Protesters rallied against coronavirus restrictions and mandatory Covid-19 passes needed in many European countries to enter restaurants, Christmas markets or sports events, as well as mandatory vaccinations.

The Austrian lockdown will start Monday and comes as average daily deaths have tripled in recent weeks and hospitals in heavily hit states have warned that their intensive care units are reaching capacity.

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Protesters in Vienna (Lisa Leutner/AP)

The lockdown will last at least 10 days but could go up to 20, officials said. People will be able to leave their homes only for specific reasons, including buying groceries, going to the doctor or exercising.

The government also will make vaccinations mandatory from February 1. Not quite 66% of Austria’s 8.9 million people are fully vaccinated, and inoculations have plateaued at one of the lowest rates in western Europe.

Saturday’s march started off at Vienna’s massive Heldenplatz square. Chanting and blowing whistles, protesters moved down the city’s inner ring road.

Many waved Austrian flags and carried signs mocking chancellor Alexander Schallenberg and health minister Wolfgang Mueckstein. Some wore medical scrubs, others had tinfoil hats.

Most signs focused on the vaccine mandate: “My Body, My Choice”, read one. “We’re Standing Up for Our Kids” said another.

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Protesters in Vienna lit flares (Lisa Leutner/AP)

Among those protesting were members of far-right and extreme-right parties and groups, including the Freedom Party, the anti-vaccine MFG party and the Identitarians.

About 1,300 police officers were on duty, and 35,000 protesters took part in different marches across the city, police said, adding that most did not wear masks. Police said several protesters were detained, but did not give numbers.

Freedom Party leader Herbert Kickl, who tested positive for Covid-19 this week and had to stay in isolation, appeared via video, denouncing what he called “totalitarian” measures from a government “that believes it should think and decide for us”.

Mr Schallenberg apologised to all vaccinated people on Friday, saying it was not fair they had to suffer under the renewed lockdown restrictions.

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The Austrian government announced a nationwide lockdown (Lisa Leutner/AP)

“I’m sorry to take this drastic step,” he said on public broadcaster ORF.

In neighbouring Switzerland, 2,000 people protested against a forthcoming referendum on whether to approve the government’s Covid-19 restrictions law, claiming it was discriminatory, public broadcaster SRF reported.

A day after the Rotterdam rioting, thousands gathered on Amsterdam’s central Dam Square, despite organisers calling off the protest. They walked peacefully through the city’s streets, closely monitored by police.

A few hundred people also marched through the southern Dutch city of Breda in protest at lockdown restrictions.

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Demonstrators listen to speakers at Rome’s Circus Maximus (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

One organiser, Joost Eras, told Dutch broadcaster NOS he did not expect violence after consulting with police about security measures.

“We certainly don’t support what happened in Rotterdam. We were shocked by it,” he told NOS.

In Italy, 3,000 turned out in the Rome’s Circus Maximus, a field where in ancient times Romans staged popular entertainment, to protest against “Green Pass” certificates required at workplaces, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, sports venues and gyms, as well as for long-distance train, bus or ferry travel within Italy.

“People like us never give up,” read one banner, in the red, white and green colours of the Italian flag. Virtually no-one at the Rome protest wore a protective mask.

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Demonstrators in Zagreb, Croatia (AP)

In Croatia, thousands gathered  in the capital Zagreb, carrying Croatian flags, nationalist and religious symbols, along with banners against vaccination and what they describe as restrictions of people’s freedoms.

In France, interior minister Gerald Darmanin condemned violent protests in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, one of France’s overseas territories.

Mr Darmanin said 29 people had been detained by police overnight. Authorities were sending 200 more police officers to the island and on Tuesday will impose a nightly curfew from 6pm to 5am.

Protesters in Guadeloupe have staged road blockades and set cars on fire. They denounce France’s Covid-19 health pass that is required to access restaurants and cafes, cultural venues, sport arenas and long-distance travel.

They are also protesting against France’s mandatory vaccinations for health care workers.

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