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ANALYSIS

How did we get here? Why Austria is bringing in lockdowns again

The development of the Covid-19 situation in Austria in the past few weeks has been dramatic, with numbers of patients in intensive care rising rapidly and authorities now bringing in measures they had previously ruled out.

How did we get here? Why Austria is bringing in lockdowns again
Chairs and tables outside a closed restaurant during a previous Austrian lockdown. Photo: Christof Stache/AFP

Editor’s note: After publishing this article on Thursday, Austria announced a nationwide lockdown to start from Monday, December 22nd, as well as compulsory vaccination for the whole population. Read more here.

The current rise in cases has prompted the two regions with the highest infection rates, Salzburg and Upper Austria, to announce a new lockdown for the entire regional population starting next week.

It is possible that the measure will be adopted nationwide as well.

Last week, a lockdown for the unvaccinated was initially announced for these two regions alone before being implemented across the whole of Austria. The government is set to meet with regional leaders on Friday to decide on any possible new national measures.

Back in September, then-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced any future lockdowns in the country would only be for the unvaccinated. It’s a plan that his successor Alexander Schallenberg has stuck to, and the Salzburg and Upper Austria governors have also spoken out against lockdowns in recent days. But the situation has been evolving rapidly.

“At the moment, numbers are skyrocketing and no relief is in sight. For a major change, we would need much stronger measures, for example complete curfew during nighttime with exceptions for emergency situations,” said Erich Neuwirth, a statistician who has been analysing Austria’s Covid-19 data throughout the pandemic and advising Viennese authorities on their strategy.

Recent weeks have seen Austria repeatedly hit new all-time highs in the number of new Covid cases reported daily, while hospitals are under increasing strain, particularly in Salzburg and Upper Austria but also across the country.

“So far, complete lockdowns have been effective in breaking waves, but they were introduced at much lower incidence levels than we have at the moment,” Neuwirth told The Local. Last December’s lockdown was introduced when the seven-day incidence rate was 205, almost a fifth of the current level (although increasing numbers of tests, in part due to current rules, will mean those numbers are not an exact reflection of the true incidence).

The current rise in cases is likely down to a combination of factors: the seasonal and behavioural changes that drove last autumn’s wave, declining immunity of those vaccinated as well as Austria’s low vaccination rate, with one in three of the population not fully jabbed.

In recent weeks, national and regional measures have been announced aimed at addressing what Schallenberg called the “shameful” vaccination rate, ranging from a lottery in Upper Austria where vaccinated citizens can enter to win prizes, to the rollout of 2G rules which effectively ban the unvaccinated from parts of society.

The lockdown for the unvaccinated prompted a surge in vaccine take-up, and Austria has also focused on rolling out booster doses, making these available two months earlier in Vienna and Salzburg. 

But with such a rapid rise in cases, vaccination will build up the level of protection in the population but cannot on its own curb the current wave.

“Higher vaccination rates definitely need to be achieved, but there is a delay of a few weeks before they can become effective,” said Neuwirth.

When asked if he had any estimate of when the situation might begin to improve, Neuwirth said: “At the moment, the situation is quite unstable, therefore predictions seem impossible.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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