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COVID-19

What will happen with the pandemic in Austria in 2022?

As we neared the end of 2021, Covid-19 was showing no signs of slowing down in Austria with the Omicron variant. But experts believe the pandemic could come to an end in 2022.

People wait in front of a vaccination bus during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, as Austria's government has imposed a lockdown on people who are not fully vaccinated, in Vienna, Austria, November 18, 2021. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
The Austrian Federal Government has extended the suspension of the controversial mandatory Covid-19 vaccination law. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Austria might be out of lockdown but that doesn’t mean the pandemic is over – not yet anyway – with experts warning of a wave of Omicron infections in the new year.

Here’s what could happen with the pandemic in 2022.

Early 2022 expected to be dominated by Omicron

Austria’s Covid forecast consortium believes the Omicron variant will become dominant in Austria in mid-January, while the country will see record high infection rates by the end of the month. 

With Omicron able to spread between two and three times as fast as Delta, the commission assumes “that the Omicron variant will become dominant within a few weeks and, if the increase continues unchecked, could exceed the previous high of daily new infections in January 2021”.

READ MORE: Austria tightens Covid measures in response to Omicron spread

The commission however said that hospitalisation rates were likely to be lower due to the fact 70 percent of the public now are either fully vaccinated (including booster) or have recently recovered from the virus.

On Wednesday evening, Katia Wagner from Kronen Zeitung TV moderated a panel of experts about Covid-19, and they all agreed January could be a tough month.

Virologist Norbert Nowotny warned people to be especially careful during the first few weeks of 2022 due to the increased risk of infection from the Omicron variant – even in vaccinated people.

Nowotny said: “This will be the highest wave we have ever had. We have to go through it.”

However, epidemiologist Hans-Peter Hutter said that Omicron is less virulent and called for calm, as opposed to spreading “poison” through panic. Hutter also said an Omicron wave should not overload the healthcare system as infections will be milder.

This aligns with recent research from the UK that suggests Omicron is not as dangerous as previous variants, like Delta, with the risk of hospitalisation 40 percent lower.

FOR MEMBERS: EXPLAINED: What will change about life in Austria in 2022?

Despite these findings though, crisis prevention expert Herbert Saurugg raised concerns with the panel that if many people become sick and can’t work, there could be a risk to critical infrastructure in Austria.

As a result, Saurugg predicts supply chain bottlenecks could start to appear in the coming days and advises households to have a supply of food, water and medication for 14 days.

Additionally, virologist Nowotny is urging the Austrian Federal Government to prepare for a new wave of infections as he believes unreported Omicron cases could be ten times higher.

Could 2022 be the year the pandemic ends?

Thankfully, there is some good news (and we definitely need it).

Once the predicted Omicron wave has passed in early 2022, Nowotny expects Covid-19 to become endemic in Austria, which means the disease will become a part of life and will no longer be a crisis due to a milder infection in most people.

If this happens, Nowotny believes that by autumn 2022 the pandemic could be coming to an end.

This is a view echoed by experts around the world, including Microsoft co-founder and billionaire health philanthropist Bill Gates who recently published an article predicting Covid-19 will become endemic in most parts of the world next year.

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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.

READ MORE: REVEALED: The Covid-19 measures for the start of the Austrian school year

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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