By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) -Austria is days away from placing millions of people not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 on lockdown, as daily infections are at a record high and intensive-care units are increasingly strained, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said on Thursday.

Around 65% of Austria’s population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, national statistics show. Austria has the lowest vaccination rate of any Western European country apart from tiny Liechtenstein, according to European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control data.

Many Austrians are sceptical about vaccinations, a view encouraged by the far-right Freedom Party, the third-biggest in parliament.

Under an incremental government plan agreed in September, once 30% of intensive-care beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, people not vaccinated against the coronavirus will be placed under lockdown, with restrictions on their daily movements. The current level is 20% and rising fast.

“According to the incremental plan we actually have just days until we have to introduce the lockdown for unvaccinated people,” Schallenberg told a news conference, adding that Austria’s vaccination rate is “shamefully low”.

The conservative-led government said on Friday it was banning the unvaccinated from restaurants, theatres, ski lifts and providers of “services close to the body” like hairdressers.

“A lockdown for the unvaccinated means one cannot leave one’s home unless one is going to work, shopping (for essentials), stretching one’s legs – namely exactly what we all had to suffer through in 2020,” Schallenberg said, referring to three national lockdowns last year.

The surge in Austria comes at a time when Eastern European states, with the continent’s lowest vaccination rates, are experiencing some of the world’s highest daily death tolls per capita. Dutch experts on Thursday recommended a two-week partial lockdown, which would be Western Europe’s first since vaccines were widely deployed, and other countries are requiring vaccination certificates to enter public spaces.

Austria, by contrast, wants to avoid imposing extra restrictions on those who are fully vaccinated.

After Schallenberg’s announcement the conservative governor of the province of Upper Austria, a Freedom Party stronghold that has the lowest vaccination rate and the highest infection rate of Austria’s nine provinces, said it planned to introduce a lockdown for the unvaccinated on Monday.

It will be introduced “provided there is a legal green light from the federal government and/or it creates the legal basis for it”, Governor Thomas Stelzer said in a statement, adding that the situation in his province is “dramatic”.

(Reporting by Francois MurphyEditing by Peter Graff and Jonathan Oatis)