Is Austria relaxing coronavirus measures too quickly? 

Austrian authorities have come under fire for their plan to relax lockdown measures in March, particularly with only a small fraction of the population vaccinated. Is Austria emerging from lockdown too quickly?

A cafe in Vienna setting out chairs at the Naschmarkt

Austria has seen a rise in coronavirus cases since relaxing its lockdown earlier in the month.

Virologists are concerned that the more infectious British variant of coronavirus is becoming widespread in eastern Austria, prompting fears of a third wave.

Explained: Everything you need to know about Austria’s plan to ease lockdown

Nonetheless, the Austrian government has decided to further loosen the lockdown, starting in Vorarlberg, the only state in Austria with a seven-day incidence of coronavirus below 100 (70).

Vorarlberg will be allowed to open restaurants from 15th March, provided infection rates remain low. 

Nationally, hotels and restaurants could open after Easter, depending on infection rates.

The German health expert and politician Karl Lauterbach has pointed out the rise in cases and the spread of the British B117 variant of the coronavirus across Eastern Austria.

On Tuesday, he wrote on Twitter that Austria was “loosening into the B117 wave”, and predicted many would “pay for that with their lives”.

He also predicted Austria would go back into lockdown. 

Huge increase in tests

On Twitter, many users responded to Lauterbach’s comments by posting graphics which show Austria’s enormous increase in testing.

However, experts and virologists have also warned against further openings in Austria, with the corona traffic light commission even saying they would recommend further closures if incidences rise above 200 per 100,000 people.

The commission believes only 10 to 15 percent of the increase in incidence cases can be traced back to increased testing. 

Are more people dying?

Despite the slow rate of vaccination in Austria, the number of new corona infections in old people’s homes fell by almost 90% between December and February.

People living in old people’s and nursing homes in Austria are now almost completely vaccinated.

The number of deaths overall has also fallen, from a seven-day average of 36 on 8th February to 24 on 2nd March.

Health Minister Rudolf Anschober has said previously the falling death rate is due to the vaccination campaign. 

Are enough people being vaccinated to open up? 

Vaccination is still slow. As of 3rd March, the corona dashboard is showing around 5.6% of the eligible population have received a vaccine.

However Chancellor Kurz has promised the speed of vaccination will rapidly increase in the coming months, comparing it to a “ketchup bottle” effect. 

A ketchup bottle effect is a situation or event where not much happens for a long time, and then a lot happens at once.

He says in March 30,000 vaccines per day could be administered  and from April more than 45,000 people per day. 

Do restaurants and cafe owners want to re-open?

Austria plans to start opening up outside dining in combination with a test requirement after Easter.  However, Chamber of Commerce gastronomy chairman Mario Pulker told the Standard newspaper for the majority of restaurants this is not a “viable option”.

Many businesses have no outdoor seating and April weather is not reliable. It could also mean restaurateurs will have to start paying rents which are currently suspended.

What is happening to jobs?

At the weekend it was calculated that the openings in retail three weeks ago brought around 120,000 people out of unemployment and short-time work back into full employment, according to Labour Minister Martin Kocher. 

Many cafes and restaurants are also staying afloat due to government support. Recent figures show there were almost half the number of  bankruptcies in the catering sector in 2020 as there were 2019. Experts predict there will be a wave of bankruptcies in catering once government support is withdrawn. 

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Austria extends its short-term work system until the end of 2022

The Kurzarbeit system was limited until June; the Federal Government this Tuesday extended its validity.

Austria extends its short-term work system until the end of 2022

Austria’s short-term works scheme, the Kurzarbeit, which was set to expire by the end of June, was officially extended until the end of the year.

The scheme allows companies particularly affected by the coronavirus pandemic to ask for government assistance as long as they keep their workforce. Employees in Kurzarbeit work fewer hours and receive a fraction of their salary, paid by the scheme – up to 90 per cent, depending on their pay.

Discussions are still ongoing between the trade union and the Chamber of Commerce on the details of the short-time work extension, broadcaster ORF reported.

Employers want the government to increase the percentage of the salary paid to workers, asking all employees receive a 90 per cent net replacement for wages. Workers with higher salaries could receive as little as 70 per cent of their wages from the scheme, leading to a significant loss of income.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How to get your €500 Kurzarbeit bonus in Austria

Austria’s Labour Minister Martin Kocher said that the extension was only possible after “significant compromises” and that the system will only exist in very specific cases in the future. He didn’t give further details, though.

One of the reasons for the extension, ORF reports, was to cushion the economic consequences of the Ukraine war.

Kurzarbeit and unemployment rates

April 2020 saw the highest number of people, more than one million, on the scheme. Around 53,000 people were still pre-registered for short-time work at the beginning of the week. From March 2020 to the end of March 2022, government spending on coronavirus short-time labour amounted to € 9.56 billion.

READ ALSO: Six official websites to know if you’re planning to work in Austria

At the same time, the domestic labour market has seen a decrease in unemployment, even with the slowdown due to the war in Ukraine and soaring energy prices.

Compared to just one week ago, 4,216 fewer people were unemployed. Currently, 324,977 people are registered with the Public Employment Service Austria (AMS) as unemployed or in training. 251,633 of them are looking for a job, and 73,344 are in training measures of the AMS.