EXPLAINED: How does Austria’s coronavirus traffic light system work?

Austria’s coronavirus traffic light system has been developed to manage risks and prevent a second nationwide lockdown. Here’s everything you need to know.

EXPLAINED: How does Austria's coronavirus traffic light system work?
A file photo of traffic lights. Photo: Kay Nietfeld / DPA / AFP

In June, Austria announced it would implement a five-colour traffic light system to help minimise the risk of a second wave and another nationwide lockdown. 

The traffic light system was launched in August with four lights, but has been changed to five to reflect the vaccination and testing improvements in Austria, which make it possible to achieve ‘very low risk’ status.

An updated map which shows the level of every single region in Austria can be found here

Here’s what you need to know. 

What is Austria’s coronavirus traffic light system? 

Put in place in the middle of September, the traffic lights are updated once every seven days. 

MAPS: Where are Austria’s emerging coronavirus hotspots? 

The five colours indicate levels of risk and will be implemented at a district level. 

The levels are: green (very low risk), yellow green (low risk), yellow (medium risk), orange (high risk) and red (acute). 

A region will be ‘green’ where there is very low risk, defined as up to five new infections per 100,000 inhabitants.

A region will be ‘yellow green’ where there is low risk due to individual cases and heavily isolated clusters. 

A region will be ‘yellow’ where there are individual cases but the clusters are less isolated. 

A region will be deemed ‘orange’ where there has been an accumulation of cases and clusters are no longer traceable. 

Finally, a region will be deemed ‘red’ – i.e. high risk – where the outbreaks are uncontrolled and the virus is widespread. 

Austria’s traffic light system has won plaudits internationally, but has also been subject to criticism. Image: AFP

How are decisions made? 

An expert committee, with input from Austria’s Coronavirus Commission, the Health Department and the Chancellery will decide whether a region needs to be made a particular colour. 

The committee takes into account a wide range of factors in making the decisions. 

In addition to considering local infection rates over seven days, the traffic light level will hinge on hospital occupancy, traceability of infection chains and the test positivity rate in the region. 

Tourist numbers – as well as cross-border commuters and returning travellers – are also taken into account. 

What does each colour mean?

This has been one of the most controversial aspects of the scheme, DPA reports. 

This is primarily because no set metrics have been developed – and each Austrian state or region has not committed to uniform metrics. 

In September, some of Austria’s western states put in place a curfew despite a low warning level, whereas the darker coloured Vienna refused to do so. 

The Ministry of Health and the Chancellery said on Monday that the measures should be “targeted and regional”, which can be confusing. 

However, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said that four main areas would be impacted should a region be deemed red: schools, bars, private parties and nursing homes, OE24 reported on Wednesday

If a district turns red, then high school students would undertake ‘e-learning’ i.e. home schooling. 

Bars would be given an earlier curfew, although this would depend on the region and the seriousness of the situation. 

The 10pm curfew in place in Vorarlberg, Tyrol and Salzburg could be adopted, or a far stricter curfew of 5pm – which is currently in place in Kuchl – could be implemented. 

The curfew applies only to bars and not to restaurants.

The current ten-person limit for private parties would be reduced to five. 

Finally, nursing home visits would be completely banned. 

Is it the same as the EU’s traffic light system? 

No. The European Union unveiled a voluntary traffic light system to help facilitate European coordination on the virus. 

The EU’s system – which makes determinations according to stringent numerical guidelines rather than at the decision of a committee – has been criticised by Austria. 

Austria’s EU minister, Karoline Edtstadler, said the system is inaccurate and ineffective because “most regions in Europe are already red”. 

“We have to be able to assess the risk better and also maintain freedom of movement and goods at the same time,” she added.

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Why getting rescued in the Austrian Alps could cost you thousands

A nice hike in the mountains that much-planned ski trip could end up costing you thousands of euros in Austria if things go wrong. Here is what you need to know.

Why getting rescued in the Austrian Alps could cost you thousands

A bright sunny day may seem like the perfect time to explore the Austrian mountains, but if you are not careful, you might have a heavy bill to pay.

This is what happened when a group of more than 100 German school children and teachers had to be rescheduled in Tyrol. The costs of airlifting and caring for most of them after the hiking trek they found online was not as easy as the website advertised could reach around €18,000.

READ ALSO: Austrian rescuers save 100 German school children stuck while hiking in the Alps

Most of it will be sent directly to the school, which presumably had its own insurance, since Austria has a strict policy when it comes to air rescues – even if you have public mandatory health insurance, such as ÖGK.

Air rescue in Austria

A very significant exception to what the public insurance, such as the Österreichische Gesundheitskasse (ÖGK) covers in Austria are air rescue.

The ÖGK does state it will pay the costs of domestic transport by aircraft if the patient is in danger of death, and the urgency calls for air transport – as long as the medical necessity is proven by a doctor and recognised by the company.

However, the insurance highlights that this does not include “accidents in the practice of sport and tourism on the mountain” – a not-so-rare occurrence in an Alpine country.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Am I liable for ambulance costs in Austria?

This means that if you suffer an accident in the streets of Vienna and need to be airlifted to a hospital, ÖGK will likely cover that bill. But if you have the exact same accident while biking on a mountain, your home address will be printed on that bill.

On its website, ÖGK reiterates that it “recommends taking appropriate precautions. Otherwise, an emergency can quickly become a big financial problem”.

The “appropriate precautions”, according to expert lawyers, would include buying private insurance  – or checking the terms of any insurance policies you already have.

How expensive can it get?

It is very difficult to assess costs because it depends on each situation and how long the services are needed.

In the case of the 99 students and their teachers, the € 18,000 included three flight hours of the police helicopter, one and a half hours of the emergency helicopter, and the “ground presence of the mountain rescuers”, Kurier reported citing specialist estimates.

READ ALSO: Everything foreigners need to know about the Austrian healthcare system

One story shows that even in case of false alarms, people can be left with hefty bills.

When worried residents saw flashlights high in the Tyrolean Alps they presumed they were emergency calls for help and called out emergency services.

As a result, a couple that was quietly camping in the mountains were surprised when mountain rescue workers turned up.

They were even more shocked to learn they had to pay a bill of more than € 2,000.

“Rescue operations must always be paid by the persons in the supposed emergency, even if they are actually not needed”, Viktoria Haider, an insurance consultant, told ORF.

On average, helicopter rescues cost around €3,500, according to a Kurier report. However, this can increase significantly for complex assignments.

What should you do to avoid high costs?

Whenever travelling, even inside Austria, primarily if you practise winter sports or plan to go for hikes, it is worth considering getting personal insurance with air rescue coverage.

Air rescue, as the case with the children shows, doesn’t extend only to physical accidents but may be necessary if you get lost or thought missing, for example.

Costs for helicopter rescues could add up to thousands of euros. Austria’s compulsory insurance schemes such as ÖGK and SVS will not cover in most cases.

In some cases, home insurers and even credit card insurances can cover travel and health expenses. However, it is still important to check – rather than assume – if this includes air rescue and under which circumstances.

If you are a frequent visitor of the Alps, it might be worth checking associations such as the Austrian Alpine Association, the Austrian Ski Association (ÖSV) or the ÖAMTC, with yearly membership fees that include insurance.