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COVID-19

Austria announces new Covid rules for Christmas and New Year

Unvaccinated people will be granted an exception to lockdown over Christmas and New Year, while the 11pm early closing time will be lifted on New Year's Eve, the government said on Friday.

Christmas dinner
Small Christmas and New Year gatherings will be allowed regardless of vaccination status. Photo: krakenimages/Unsplash

The lockdown for unvaccinated people has been extended for another ten days, but the government has introduced an exception on some of the key dates in the Catholic calendar. On December 24th, 25th and 26th as well as on December 31st, up to ten people will be allowed to meet privately without a requirement for 2G proof.

For people with proof of 2G, up to 25 people may meet privately.

Another holiday rule change announced on Friday was that the 11pm curfew for gastronomy will be lifted on December 31st only. 

Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein said that the three-week lockdown for the Austrian population had eased the Covid situation enough to allow a relaxation of the rules over the festive period, but warned that the situation was still serious.

“We have to make Christmas possible within the family,” he told media.

READ ALSO: How to celebrate Christmas like an Austrian

He urged everyone to “continue to exercise caution”, particularly in light of the spread of the Omicron variant, which scientists believe is significantly more transmissible than previous variants of Covid-19. There are currently 75 confirmed cases of the variant in Austria.

He also appealed to people to get their vaccine before Christmas to boost protection against the virus for themselves and their community, whether this was a first vaccine or a third dose. Third doses are possible from four months after the second dose.

The above changes apply nationally and function as a minimum standard, meaning that Austria’s nine regions may choose to introduce their own stricter rules, but cannot introduce rules that are more lenient than the national ones.

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COVID-19 STATS

UPDATED: Will Austria bring back face mask mandate to battle rising Covid cases?

As the number of Covid-19 infections and related hospitalisations rises in Austria, many are asking for new measures to be adopted, especially a mask mandate.

UPDATED: Will Austria bring back face mask mandate to battle rising Covid cases?

Austria has seen an increase in the number of Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations in recent weeks, with 2,428 people currently hospitalised with the disease, including 118 in intensive care (ICU).

One month ago, just 871 people were being treated in hospital with an additional 47 people in ICU.

The Austrian Federal Government has now said they will make a decision on bringing back the mask mandate by October 23rd. Last week, the National Covid Crisis Coordination (GECKO) recommended wearing FFP2 masks.

According to ORF, the mask mandate could return for public indoor spaces, public transport and in the gastronomy sector. The Austrian Trade Association has already rejected the suggestion saying it would be the “last straw” for employees as the industry struggles with staff shortages.

What are the Covid-19 experts predicting for the autumn and winter season?

The latest report from the Covid prognosis consortium in Austria predicts a rise in hospitalisations in October. 

In a “worst case” scenario, as many as 3,428 people who tested positive would need a hospital bed on October 19th, the latest forecast said. A “further significant increase in hospitalisation is to be expected, with the Covid population in the ICU area remaining almost unchanged”, the experts summarised.

READ ALSO: Reader question: When should I get a fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine in Austria?

In comparison, last autumn, the country was on an Austria-wide lockdown and on November 28th, there were 2,767 infected persons hospitalised.

However, the experts said there is a very high proportion of incidental findings among hospitalised patients. Only around 22 percent of those presently hospitalised were admitted with Covid-19 symptoms. In the intensive care unit, this proportion was only 12 percent – most people go to the hospital for other reasons and find they test positive for the coronavirus.

Calls for pandemic-containment measures

Still, the consortium warned about staff shortages in hospitals. “The increased infection pressure is currently also translating into above-average unplanned staff absences”, it wrote.

READ ALSO: From inflation to Covid: What to expect from Austria’s winter season

In view of the situation in the hospitals, experts are calling for the reintroduction of mandatory masks.

Virologist Dorothee von Laer from the Medical University of Innsbruck criticised the government, saying authorities were once again “too late” to take measures.

“We are now at the last push to reintroduce compulsory masks indoors so that the omicron wave from spring is not repeated,” the virologist told Kurier.

“How much longer to watch Covid go through the roof? Winter is still long, and hospitals are getting crowded with decreasing staff and increasing occupancy. Mask up! #CovidIsntOver,” Thomas Czypionka, Head of IHS Health Economics and Health Policy of the Institute for Advanced Studies (IHS), said on Twitter.

Currently, people in Austria only need to wear masks in the health sector area, such as in hospitals and elderly care homes. However, the capital Vienna has stricter rules, imposing a mask mandate on public transport.

Only in a ‘state of emergency’

Speaking to public broadcaster ORF, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) ruled out the immediate introduction of a mask mandate.

He said stricter rules would only be imposed if the situation in hospitals “escalates, becomes threatening, and a state of emergency occurs”.

READ ALSO: LATEST: The Covid rules across Austria

At the same time, he reiterated that the pandemic is not over and that when the government removed the mask mandate, it also announced the rules could be brought back in autumn.

“When the mask requirement was abolished in grocery stores and public transport in the spring, I already said: If it should become necessary again in the autumn, the general mask requirement will be reintroduced there”, he said.

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