Austria’s lockdown for the unvaccinated to end on Monday

After more than two months, Austria's lockdown for unvaccinated people will end on January 31st, the government announced on Wednesday, but widespread 2G rules will remain in place.

Austria's lockdown for the unvaccinated to end on Monday
Next week will see the end to one of Austria's most stringent Covid-19 measures. Photo: Tobias Schwarz/AFP

The partial lockdown means that people without proof of 2G (full vaccination or recent recovery from Covid-19) are only allowed to leave home for special reasons including food shopping or physical exercise.

Chancellor Karl Nehammer and Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein confirmed on Wednesday that the lockdown would end next week.

Nehammer reiterated that bringing in the measure had been “unavoidable for health policy reasons”, but said that after consultation with the GECKO crisis committee, the government had decided there was no longer an immediate risk of intensive care capacity being overloaded.

There are currently just under 200 people in Austria’s ICUs for Covid, compared to around 600 when the measure was first introduced.

Political support for the measure has waned in recent weeks, with calls to end the lockdown coming from multiple regional governors of different parties in recent days.

READ MORE: Will Austria ease its Covid restrictions soon?

Police were responsible for carrying out spot checks, and at any police checks already being carried out for other reasons, for example traffic controls, police can now ask for proof of 2G. Additional checks focused on areas where people come into close contact with others, such as on public transport, at restaurants, and in busy shopping areas. 

The fines for violating the lockdown for the unvaccinated are €500, while refusing to participate in checks carries a fine of up to €1,450.

However, it remains to be seen exactly how the change will work in practice when the end to lockdown is passed in parliament on Friday, or whether any of Austria’s other Covid measures will be relaxed — Mückstein said on Twitter that “all the other strict measures are effective and remain in place”.

Even before the lockdown for people without 2G was introduced, many public venues including restaurants and museums had a 2G requirement, and that remains the case currently.

When the lockdown was brought in, the main change in practice was that people without 2G were also banned from non-essential retail, as well as libraries and museums.

And as of February, Austria’s vaccine mandate will come into effect. This means that people who are not vaccinated against Covid-19 will face fines, with the first of these set to be issued from mid-March following an initial ‘information’ phase. 

READ MORE: How does Austria’s vaccine mandate compare to other countries?

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Will Austria bring back its mask mandate before autumn?

As Covid-19 infection numbers continue rising, Austria's government doesn't rule out a comeback of the mask requirement.

Will Austria bring back its mask mandate before autumn?

Austria has seen rising Covid-19 numbers for weeks, and the country’s traffic light commission has increased the risk rating of all federal states, with none currently designated as “low risk”.

Virologists and health experts have given many explanations for rising numbers and forecast that new infections, currently at more than 12,000 a day, could reach more than 30,000 in the next few weeks.

Austria’s Covid commission said that the omicron subvariant BA.4/BA.5 is a decisive factor in the increase, as it is considered more infectious. “Additionally, an increased proportion of travel-associated cases has been observed in recent weeks”, the commission stated.

READ ALSO: LATEST: These are the Covid rules in Austria and Vienna from June 2022

Dorothee von Laer, a Med-Uni Innsbruck virologist, told Der Standard that the new subvariant could be responsible for a new wave as “the protection we have from BA1 infections, and from vaccinations, is not so good against BA.4/BA.5”.

“So people who were infected early on, or who are only vaccinated, have of course some protection against hospitalisation, but almost no or very little protection against infection”, she said.

Von Laer mentioned other factors that likely contributed to the increasing numbers, including the fact that people have stopped wearing masks after the requirement was dropped in most of Austria.

Are masks about to make a comeback?

When Austria’s federal government announced they would drop the Covid mask mandate, they phrased it as a “pause” to the FFP2 masks, which were still mandatory in essential trade and public transport.

Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) said that the mask requirement will be “paused”, as the pandemic is not over yet, and that people should be prepared for a resumption of the rules after summer, as The Local reported.

BACKGROUND: Austria to ‘pause’ Covid mask mandate from June 1st

Many experts believe FFP2 masks won’t be optional for long if numbers continue rising. Von Laer said, “we will probably have to resort to the mask again, even if the hospitals are not overcrowded because we want to protect the vulnerable people”.

The health minister had already stated that it is time people “take personal responsibility” so that they choose to wear masks in crowds or when close to vulnerable people.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

However, he recently added that if the situation “goes in the direction of overloading the health system, then, of course, I am also obliged to react”.

The minister also said he reassesses the situation every week, observing developments in other countries.

‘We will have to learn’

For Rauch, people will need to learn to live with the masks, as future waves can also be expected in the coming years. He added that we would have to learn to take personal responsibility, make self-assessments, and have solidarity.

READ ALSO: Austria sees scores of flight cancellations after airline staff contact Covid

He also assumes more flexible measures in the future. For example, public transport signs will ask for the mask mandate during morning traffic hours, but not on empty evening trains.

His goal, the minister stated, was to find a middle ground between demanding as few restrictions as possible and exercising caution.

Covid-19 stats

Austria on Wednesday reported 12,509 new coronavirus infections after 169,948 PCR tests, according to the Health Ministry.

There were 856 people in hospitals with Covid-19 and 47 in intensive care. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 18,779 people have died from the disease.

The country has just over 61 percent of its population with a valid vaccination pass.