Tens of thousands of people, many of them far-right supporters, 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, blowing horns and banging drums, crowds streamed into Heroes’ Square in front of the Hofburg, the former imperial palace in central Vienna, in the early afternoon, one of several protest locations.
Many demonstrators waved Austrian 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 roughly 35,000 people, according to the 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 the ban on Nazi symbols.
Roughly 66% of Austria’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in western Europe. Many Austrians are sceptical about vaccines, a view encouraged by the far-right Freedom Party, the third-biggest 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 reintroduce a lockdown on Monday and make it compulsory to get vaccinated as of Feb. 1.
The Freedom Party (FPO) and other vaccine-critical groups had already been planning a show of force in Vienna on Saturday before Friday’s announcement, which prompted FPO leader Herbert Kickl to respond that “As of today, Austria is a dictatorship”.
Kickl could not attend because he has caught COVID-19.
“We are not in favour of our government’s measures,” said one protester, who was part of a group wearing tin foil on their heads and brandishing toilet brushes. Like most protesters who spoke to the media, they declined to give their names, though the mood was festive.
Two people were being treated in hospital in the Dutch city of Rotterdam on Saturday after they were seriously injured when police fired shots during a violent protest against COVID-19 measures, authorities said.
Crowds of several hundred rioters torched cars set off fireworks and threw rocks at police during the protests on Friday evening. Police responded with warning shots and water canons.
Rotterdam police said on Twitter Saturday that 51 people had been arrested, half of whom were under 18.
“Two rioters where wounded when they were hit by bullets, they remain in hospital,” police added.
The city’s mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, said protest had turned into “an orgy of violence”.
“Police were forced to draw their weapons and even fire direct shots,” he told a press conference early on Saturday.
Dutch justice minister Ferd Grapperhaus said in a statement that the “extreme violence” against police and fire fighters in Rotterdam was “repulsive”.
“The right to protest is very important in our society but what we saw last night was simply criminal behaviour,” Grapperhaus said.
Protesters had gathered to voice opposition to government plans to restrict access to indoor venues to people who have a “corona pass”, showing they have been vaccinated or have already recovered from an infection.
The pass is also available to people who have not been vaccinated, but have proof of a negative test.
Organisers of a planned protest Saturday in Amsterdam against the coronavirus measures said they had canceled the event after Friday’s violence.
Even so, several hundred protesters showed up in the city’s central Dam square, monitored by a heavy police presence.
In the southern city of Breda, a musical protest called by local DJs against current COVID-19 measures, which include the 8 p.m. closure of bars, restaurants and clubs, attracted a few hundred people. The Netherlands re-imposed some lockdown measures last weekend for an initial three weeks in an effort to slow a resurgence of coronavirus contagion, but daily infections have remained at their highest levels since the start of the pandemic.