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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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.”