How does Austria decide whether to tighten or loosen coronavirus measures?

The government is meeting on Monday to decide if and where lockdown measures in Austria should be extended, tightened or lifted. Here's what you need to know.

Hospital patient

The Austrian government will announce at 6pm on Monday whether coronavirus measures will be relaxed from March 27th, or whether an extension is necessary. 

At this stage, it appears that the widespread opening steps planned for March 27th will not take place, although it remains to be seen whether Austria will opt for a clear extension – or whether a regional approach will be adopted. 

There is no hard and fast criteria for making the decision. Instead, the Austrian government will take into account a range of factors including infection rates, hospitalisations and of course the country’s ‘coronavirus traffic light’ system. 

Here’s what you need to know. 

What is the current situation in Austria?

In Austria, the number of occupied intensive care beds is now around 400. This corresponds to a little more than 40 percent of the total available capacity.

According to calculations by the experts, this number will rise to 515 by the end of March.

This may not seem so bad. However, looking at the national picture is slightly misleading, as there are big differences between the east of Austria and the west.

In the east, hospitals are getting close to the levels seen last autumn, when Austria went into its second lockdown.

MAPS: Where are Austria’s hospitals under the most pressure?

In Vienna, ICU beds are at their highest rate of occupancy since the pandemic begun.

In Austria, the seven-day incidence is over 230, rising to over 300 in the east. 

However, even in Vienna (314), politicians are calling for pub gardens and restaurant terraces to open.  

Neighbouring Germany is discussing lockdown measures until after Easter because its seven-day incidence, or the number of new infections per 100,000 people over a seven day period, has now exceeded 100.

Traffic light committee

Take a look at a map of Austria on the country’s Corona Traffic Light page or Corona Ampel, and you will see almost the entire country is coloured red, with the exception of Vorarlberg, which is orange. 

The four colours indicate levels of risk, ranging from green (low risk), yellow (medium risk), orange (high risk) and red (acute). 

Most regions in Austria are red or high risk, meaning the corona outbreaks in these states are uncontrolled and the virus is widespread.

The Corona Commission, which advises the Traffic Light committee currently classifies Austria as “very high risk”.

The infection rate shows significant increases starting from a high level in the majority of the federal states. With the exception of Vorarlberg  infections with the new virus variants (mainly the so-called British variant) are dominant. 

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

What factors decide what colour each region should be? 

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

In addition to considering local infection rates over seven days (supplied by Agency for Health and Food Safety or AGES), the traffic light level will hinge on hospital occupancy, traceability of infection chains and the test positivity rate in the region. 

Tourist numbers, cross-border commuters and returning travellers are also taken into account. 

So does that mean red areas will automatically be locked down? 

No concrete measures are linked to any particular traffic light colour. Decisions on measures to contain the corona virus are taken both by the federal government at the federal level  and by state and district leaders at a regional level.

At present, a seven-day infection rate above 400 hundreds for a seven day period normally triggers exit restrictions for individual regions.

Special restrictions have been put in place in Tyrol, which has had an outbreak of the South African variant of the coronavirus.

On the other hand, in Vorarlberg, restaurants and bars have opened and events and sports training for children has been allowed to resume, as it has low levels of coronavirus infections.

Deaths remain low

Deaths have stayed low during the third wave in Austria due to vaccination of nursing home residents and over 80s.

However, the new British variant of the coronavirus is now dominant in most of Austria. This raises the risk of serious disease, even for younger people.

There is also around a three week time-lag before a rise in infections results in more patients in intensive care. This makes it easy to underestimate the risk to the healthcare system of rising infections. 

What will Austria decide? 

As at Monday morning, March 22nd, the government has given few indications as to the way forward. 

However, Austrian media reports that the nationwide loosening of measures – including again allowing restaurants and pubs with terraces to open from Saturday, March 27th, is almost certain not to take place

Kronen Zeitung reports that any widespread opening on a national scale is unlikely before mid-April.

Der Standard reports that regional rather than nation-wide relaxations are the probable course of action.

This has already taken place in Vorarlberg, where restaurants have been allowed to serve guests indoor and outdoor since March 15th.

According to the APA news agency, the government wants to “find tailor-made solutions for the affected regions”.

While details are at this stage relatively scarce, this could include allowing states to open up again as has happened in Vorarlberg, or particular regions or municipalities.

What about Easter? 

At the moment it seems likely a similar relaxation to Christmas, when more people were allowed to meet, will be put in pace for Easter. 

Last Christmas, the evening curfew was lifted and up to ten people from up to ten different households were allowed to meet.

At the moment, meetings of a maximum of four people from two different households plus underage children are permitted.

Austrian media reports that the government is considering a similar relaxation of measures just for the Easter period.

According to Austria’s Kronen Zeitung, the government’s “discussion was about easing the visiting rules based on those at Christmas”. 

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‘The pandemic is not over’: Vienna keeps mask rule in public transport

Austria's capital has decided to keep mandatory FFP2 masks in public transport but is dropping them in supermarkets.

'The pandemic is not over': Vienna keeps mask rule in public transport

Austria’s capital Vienna will still have mandatory usage of FFP2 masks even if the federal government is dropping the requirement in the rest of the country.

It will still be mandatory in Vienna to wear masks when public transport, pharmacies, doctors’ offices, and hospitals, SPÖ Mayor Michael Ludwig announced this Tuesday.

People no longer will need to wear masks in supermarkets and other essential trade, though. The decision was taken after a meeting with the city crisis committee and health authorities, according to the mayor.

“The pandemic is not over yet. We will remain on the consistent and safe path”, Ludwig said.

Earlier this Tuesday, Austria’s Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) had announced the country would “pause” mask requirements from June 1st in all but health establishments during the summer months, as reported.

READ ALSO: Austria to ‘pause’ Covid mask mandate from June 1st

Rauch justified the decision by saying that the coronavirus numbers, both of new infections and of hospitalised people, have significantly dropped and maintained a downwards trend for weeks.

“The number of new infections has fallen, as well as the number of people in hospitals due to Covid-19, for several weeks now. This is good news”, he said.

Since the last major easing step in mid-April, the FFP2 obligation has only been in force in enclosed spaces of hospitals and homes, public transport and taxis, in the customer area of vital trade, in party traffic of administrative authorities and in institutions for the practice of religion outside trade fairs.

However, the federal government sets out the minimum standard for the country, but the different states may adopt stricter measures. Vienna has often kept tougher regulations during the pandemic, including a more extended period when only vaccinated or recovered people were allowed in bars and restaurants.

Vaccination campaign

The Viennese mayor also commented on the suspended vaccine mandate law, stating that vaccination protects and the city would have a “corresponding vaccination campaign soon”.

Ludwig added that he would demand the same from the federal government. “All of this is done to protect the health of the Viennese population”, he said.

Austria this Tuesday reported 2,177 new coronavirus infections after 185,230 PCR tests, according to the Health Ministry. Currently, there are 596 people hospitalised with Covid-19 and 57 in intensive care units.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 18,607 people have died from Covid-19 in the country.