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VACCINATION

Austria: EU to send extra vaccines to fight coronavirus mutations in Tyrol

The European Union will send 100,000 additional doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines to an Austrian district that has become a hotspot of the South African coronavirus variant.

A test station on the Austrian border
Photo: CHRISTOF STACHE / AFP

A spread of the South African variant could pose a major setback in Europe’s fight against the pandemic both because it is more infectious and because it may be more resistant to the vaccine made by AstraZeneca.

The EU ordered about 40 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab.

“We will receive 100,000 additional doses (from Pfizer-BioNTech) from the EU to fight the spread in the district of Schwaz,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said at a press conference, adding that the region was “one of the biggest clusters of the South African variant in Europe.”

Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine, based on a different technology than AstraZeneca, is expected to be much more effective in protecting against the onset of Covid-19 when transmitted through the South African variant.

EXPLAINED: Why has Austria locked down the state of Tyrol?

A commission of international scientists, dispatched by the EU, will accompany the vaccination campaign in Schwaz to evaluate its efficacy in eliminating the highly contagious variant.

“Our goal is to stymie this large cluster and move towards zero infections, as much as this is possible,” Kurz said, adding that he’d like to “exterminate the variant.”

Every adult resident of the district with a total population of about 80,000 will be offered a vaccine starting around March 10, while the district will continue to be quarantined and only those with a negative Covid-19 test will be allowed to leave.

The number of active cases has dropped from more than 200 a few weeks ago down to below 100, largely due to a quarantine and mass testing imposed after several media reports alleged that a group of middle-aged men who travelled to South Africa for their annual golf holiday had introduced the variant.

Also on Wednesday, the Austrian capital of Vienna began administering the first doses of AstraZeneca to those older than 65, hoping to speed up its campaign to inoculate the majority of its roughly 2 million residents.

“There is no reason to continue to block this,” the medical director of the Vienna health association, Michael Binder, said Wednesday, describing AstraZeneca as a “valuable vaccine” with “adequate efficacy”.

The World Health Organisation has said that the AstraZeneca vaccine could be given to people over 65, but France and Germany refused to authorise it for that age group.

French Health Minister Olivier Veron has since reversed course, saying Monday the vaccine would be extended to those between 65-75 with comorbidities.

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ECONOMY

From inflation to Covid: What to expect from Austria’s winter season

Austria’s lucrative winter season has already been hit by pandemic restrictions for the past two years. But this year there is also record inflation, staff shortages and an energy crisis to deal with.

From inflation to Covid: What to expect from Austria's winter season

The winter season in Austria is a big driver of the country’s economy and has been hit hard by Covid-19 restrictions for the past two winters.

But this year the industry faces an even bigger crisis – a combination of rising inflation, concerns over energy supplies, staff shortages and the pandemic (because it’s not over yet).

We took a closer look to find out how these issues could impact the industry and what we could expect from this year’s winter season in Austria.

FOR MEMBERS: EXPLAINED: Why is Wien Energie asking for €6 billion from the Austrian government?

Inflation

Winter sports is a big guzzler of energy to operate ski lifts, apres ski venues and snow making machines. 

This means the industry is in a vulnerable position as energy prices rise, with some resort operators already confirming they will have to pass on some costs to customers.

Johann Roth, Managing Director at Präbichl in Styria, said that energy costs at the resort have tripled and admitted he is concerned about the coming winter season.

Roth told the Kronen Zeitung: “Of course we will have to increase the ticket prices, and to an extent that has never been seen in recent years.”

READ MORE: Cost of living: Why are restaurants getting more expensive in Austria?

At Planai ski resort in Schladming, Styria, Director Georg Bliem said they aim to keep the day ticket price under €70, but has also set up an energy task force to find cost-saving measures for this year. 

Suggestions for Planai include narrower slopes, reduced snowmaking capabilities, shorter cable car operating times and even a delayed start to the season.

Electricity costs at Planaibahn (the resort’s ski lift and gondola operator) were already at €3 million before the current energy crisis, according to the Kronen Zeitung.

Then there are hospitality businesses and hotels at ski resorts that are also being hit by rising costs.

As a result, the Kurier reports that room prices in overnight accommodation could increase by a further 15 percent in winter, and many people will no longer be able to afford skiing holidays.

Heating may be an issue in winter as the energy crisis looms (Photo by Achudh Krishna on Unsplash)

Energy

Rising prices are just one element of the energy crisis as there are fears that Austria will not have enough gas for the coming winter season – mostly due to the war in Ukraine.

In March, Austria activated the early warning system – which is the first level of a three-step emergency plan – for the country’s gas supply. If it reaches step three (emergency level), energy control measures will be put in place across the country.

FOR MEMBERS: When will Austria make the €500 anti-inflation payment and how do I get it?

How this would impact ski resorts is unknown, but at the emergency level, households, essential industries and infrastructure would be prioritised for energy.

So far, there is no indication that step two (alert level) will be activated and the European Aggregated Gas Storage Inventory recently confirmed that Austria’s gas storage capacity was 60 percent full

Austria’s goal is to reach 80 percent capacity by November 1st in order to have a safety reserve.

However, Energy Minister Leonore Gewessler already appealed to businesses and households in July to start saving energy where possible.

Staff shortages

Ever since Austria (and Europe) started opening up after Covid-19 lockdowns, the hospitality and tourism industries have been struggling to find staff.

In fact, shortly before the start of the summer season in Austria, there were 30,000 open job vacancies in the tourism sector. And the Wiener Zeitung recently reported on how restaurants in Vienna are struggling to keep up with customer demand due to staff shortages. 

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The issue is even being discussed in parliament and it has already been made easier for seasonal workers in Austria to access residency through changes to the Red-White-Red card. 

Now, there are expectations of similar staff shortages for the winter season, which could cause further stress for ski resort operators.

Covid-19

Back in July, it was reported that the federal government was working on a Covid-19 contingency plan to get the country through another autumn and winter.

It envisages four scenarios – numbered from the best to the worst case. In the best case scenario, Austrians can live free of any pandemic rules. In the second best scenario, the situation will remain as it is (find out more about Austria’s latest Covid-19 rules here).

In scenario three, if new variants lead to more severe illness, the mask requirement will be expanded and more testing will be carried out.

READ MORE: REVEALED: The Covid-19 measures for the start of the Austrian school year

There could even be night-time curfews, entry tests and restrictions on private meetings. In addition, major events could be stopped from taking place and nightclubs closed.

Scenario four, the worst case scenario, would mean vaccination no longer offered protection and hospitals became overwhelmed, leading to severe restrictions on people’s social lives.

From what we’ve seen over the past two winters, scenarios three and four would likely impact winter sports operations. But to what degree would depend on the severity of the situation.

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