UPDATE: Is Austria relaxing Covid measures too quickly as Delta variant spreads?

Austria is relaxing most coronavirus restrictions on July 1st despite heightened concern surrounding the Delta variant. But what do the experts say?

UPDATE: Is Austria relaxing Covid measures too quickly as Delta variant spreads?
Austria has further relaxed coronavirus measures as of July 1st. Photo: John MacDougall/AFP

Since midnight, many of the remaining Covid-19 restrictions in Austria have been eased, but some politicians and experts are asking if it’s too soon – especially as the Delta variant continues to spread.

Although 3-G (tested, vaccinated or recovered) still applies for hospitality and many cultural and leisure activities, late night venues can open again and it is no longer mandatory to wear an FFP2 mask in retail. 

FFP2 masks still have to be worn in hospitals and aged-care homes in Vienna, but in essential retail spaces like supermarkets and pharmacies and on public transport, only a cloth mask is required.

At the same time, cases of the Delta variant, which is more transmissible than the Alpha variant and can potentially bypass some immunity, is increasing in Austria.

This has led to concerns about the relaxation of restrictions, with Vienna taking a different path to the rest of the country by banning the use of self-tests and introducing a mandate that children from the age of 6 need proof of a negative test or vaccination.

For the rest of the country, the 3-G rule for children is being raised from the age of 10 to 12.

IN DETAIL: How Austria will relax coronavirus measures from Thursday

What do the experts say?

The Local spoke to Fabian Valka, Researcher Mathematical Modeling and Machine Learning at vektorraum, about the 1st July Lockerungen (relaxation of measures) and the Delta variant.

Fabian said: “The proportion of Delta variant cases among all cases in Austria is rapidly growing, like in many other countries. 

“The current data also suggests that the Delta variant cases are probably already growing exponentially in Austria. 

“Any lifting of current interventions, like mask mandates, has the potential to further accelerate that growth.”

Fabian, a co-author of the Covid-19 Model for Austria for Imperial College London, confirmed that Delta is already the dominant variant accounting for 39 per cent of sequenced or PCR-tested cases in Austria, according to the latest data from AGES.

He also shared the news in a Tweet:

Fabian said: “The proportion among current infections is probably even higher since cases always lag behind infections and the clear growth of Delta.”

When asked about the potential for another outbreak of Covid-19 in the autumn and winter, he said: “We can already see a fast rise of cases in the UK, even though full lifting was delayed. 

“Austria right now is in a position of relatively low case numbers, still declining cases and a smaller proportion of Delta. 

“But the proportion of Delta is also growing rapidly and we’ve got far fewer people fully vaccinated than in the UK.

“Personally, I think that we’ll probably need to reintroduce many currently lifted interventions in Austria to stop the next wave of cases, hospitalisations, and deaths.”

So, what advice does Fabian have for people as restrictions are rolled back across the country?

He told The Local: “The best protection is still to get fully vaccinated.”

“Personally, I’ll still keep wearing an FFP2 or FFP3 mask, even when not mandatory.”

What is the Austrian media saying?

Today, Der Standard is asking if the same mistakes as last summer are being repeated, with a relaxation of measures followed by an autumn and winter of lockdowns and high case numbers.

The Wiener Zeitung is reporting on Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) saying further restrictions are not necessary right now, and Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein (Greens) predicting a “safe autumn”.

ORF is reporting on the opening of clubs and discos with details about the new rules, including that staff and guests don’t have to wear masks.

The Kronen Zeitung is reporting on criticism by Tourism Minister Elisabeth Köstinger (ÖVP) about the decision in Vienna to tighten some restrictions.

READ MORE: Entry, masks and nightclubs: What are the rules in some of Austria’s favourite holiday destinations?

What is the advice from the WHO?

The WHO has said that Delta is quickly becoming the dominant strain of Covid-19 around the world.

During a news briefing last week, Dr. Mariangela Simao, WHO Assistant Director-General for Access to Medicines and Health Products, said vaccination alone won’t stop the spread of the variant and urged people to remain cautious.

She said: “People cannot feel safe just because they had the two doses. They still need to protect themselves.”

Dr. Simao then advised people to continue with protective measures, such as mask wearing, social distancing, avoiding crowds and practicing good hand hygiene.

What are people saying about the relaxation of restrictions in Austria?

On Twitter, people are sharing their concerns about the upcoming relaxation in light of the Delta variant.

READ MORE: TRAVEL: How does the new EU Covid certificate work and how do I get one?

What is happening in other countries?

Following the recent recommendation from the WHO, the Wall Street Journal reported that half of the people infected with the Delta variant in Israel had already been fully vaccinated with the Pfizer jab. 

Israel has now reintroduced an indoor mask requirement. 

In the USA, Los Angeles County has also reintroduced a mask recommendation for residents as cases of the Delta variant increase in the state – including for fully vaccinated people.

The UK has recorded 117 deaths from the Delta variant, including 50 people who had already been fully vaccinated and were aged over 50.

face covering is required in the UK in places like supermarkets, public transport, hairdressers and public areas in hotels. 

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Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

The mandatory EU-wide mask requirement for air travel is set to be dropped from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still require passengers to wear masks on some or all flights

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

Europe-wide facemask rules on flights are set to be ditched as early as next week in light of new recommendations from health and air safety experts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dropped recommendations for mandatory mask-wearing in airports and during flights in updated Covid-19 safety measures for travel issued on Wednesday, May 11th.

The new rules are expected to be rolled out from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still continue to require the wearing of masks on some or all of flights. And the updated health safety measures still say that wearing a face mask remains one of the best ways to protect against the transmission of the virus.

The joint EASA/ECDC statement reminded travellers that masks may still be required on flights to destinations in certain countries that still require the wearing of masks on public transport and in transport hubs.

It also recommends that vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask which offers a higher level of protection than a standard surgical mask.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said in the statement. 

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”  

ECDC director Andrea Ammon added: “The development and continuous updates to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have given travellers and aviation personnel better knowledge of the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. 

“While risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal. 

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission. 

“The rules and requirements of departure and destination states should be respected and applied consistently, and travel operators should take care to inform passengers of any required measures in a timely manner.”