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Today in Austria: A roundup of the latest news on Monday

Every weekday, The Local brings you an English-language summary of the news you need to know in Austria.

wolfgang mückstein
Austrian Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein has resigned, saying he could no longer give 100 percent. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Austria’s lockdown for unvaccinated people ends today

As of today, there is no longer a lockdown in place for people without proof of 2G, meaning they can leave their homes for any reason (though most public venues do have a 2G requirement).

During the lockdown, which has been in place since mid-November, around 250 people were reported for violating the rules.

The reason for the low number is that the lockdown was difficult to control, both because it only applied to some of the population and because there were numerous exceptions including leaving home to go to work, go food shopping, or for exercise. This meant most checks took place in venues with a 2G rule such as shops or museums.

More Covid rule changes this week

There are a few more rule changes on the agenda, some of which were only announced over the weekend.

There’s the vaccine mandate coming into force, and the validity of two vaccine doses shortens to six months from tomorrow, but there are also some relaxations on the cards, despite earlier statements that the government wanted to wait before introducing relaxations.

The curfew for restaurants and bars will be extended from 10pm until midnight starting on February 5th, while the maximum number of guests at an event will be raised to 50 people on the same day, the Health Ministry confirmed.

Next week, on February 12th, the so-called 2G rules for retail will be removed, meaning that people will no longer need to produce proof of vaccination or recovery at the entrance to shops. Customers will still have to wear FFP2 masks.

It’s worth noting that Vienna’s mayor has criticised the re-opening plan, and previously Vienna has had harsher measures than the national ones, so it’s possible stricter rules may be announced for the capital region.

Constitutional court reviews Covid measures

Speaking of the measures, Austria’s Constitutional Court is establishing how legally justified they were.

The main focus is on the burden on the healthcare system, which was the main justification for stringent measures such as the lockdown for the unvaccinated as well as 2G rules.

The court has also asked the Health Ministry for data on how effective these measures are at curbing the spread of Covid-19.

Anti-vaccination party comes third in Lower Austria local election

The anti-vaccination party MFG achieved third place with 17 percent of the vote in local council elections in Waidhofen an der Ybbs, a city of around 12,000 people in Lower Austria.

Spanish royals visit Vienna

It’s the first time Spanish monarchs have visited the Austrian capital since 2007, and the first official visit of King Felipe VI.

The couple will carry out the official opening of an exhibition on Dali and Freud in the Belvedere, which has however been open to the public since Friday.

How much did Vienna grow last year?

By 13,900 people, bringing the capital’s total population to 1.935 million on January 1st this year and making it the fifth largest city in the EU after Berlin, Madrid, Rome and Paris.

Two bonuses to know about

Self-employed people can apply to SVS for a €100 deduction if they are fully up-to-date on all vaccinations, including Covid-19 but also the other vaccines recommended in Austria. You also get a €100 one-off bonus for each co-insured member of your family who also meets the criteria. The initiative is called Geimpft Gesünder and you can apply through SVS.

Another potential boost for your wallet was announced on Friday: a one-off payment to support unemployed and very low income people with rising energy costs which was first announced in December will now be doubled to €300. And the majority of other households will receive €150. 

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Today in Austria: A roundup of the latest news on Friday

Austria needs to 'wake up' in terms of neutrality, kindergarten headscarf ban overturned and more news on Friday.

Today in Austria: A roundup of the latest news on Friday

Former foreign minister says Austria needs to examine its security policy 

The former Austrian ÖVP Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik has given a speech calling for Austria to look again at its security policy in the light of the debate over neutrality. “Austrian security policy has been dormant for almost a quarter of a century. We cannot afford to sleep for decades,” said Plassnik, according to broadcaster ORF, speaking at the Medienzentrum Ausseerland conference in Grundlsee organized by the Association of Foreign Press.

She said it was time for an update of the security policy, which is now ten years old, and to carry out a “careful, impartial and EU-compliant current risk analysis”. Plassnik suggested an “options report” should be carried out in 2022. This has been attempted before in 1998, but failed because Austria’s SPÖ party did not want to examine NATO membership at the time.

Following the decision of Finland and Sweden to join NATO, 23 EU countries now belong to the North Atlantic Defense Alliance. Only Ireland, Malta, Cyprus and Austria remain outside.

Plassnik called for debate, saying Austria was a “stowaway” in terms of security policy, in which its neighbors, the NATO members, paid the insurance policy. She added while Austrians may “carry neutrality in their hearts” it was important not to lose their heads. 

READ MORE: ‘No country is an island’: Is it time for Austria to abandon its neutrality policy?

No more headscarf ban in Austrian kindergartens

The headscarf ban in Austria’s kindergartens has been repealed. The measure will no longer be included in the new 15a agreement between the federal and state governments, broadcaster ORF reports. A law banning headscarves in Austrian schools, introduced under the previous ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government was overturned previously because it was found not to be compatible with Austria’s federal constitution. However, state laws mean in kindergartens, the ban is still in force, except in Salzburg and Tyrol. The constitutional court said in a statement that these laws were probably also unconstitutional

 A new 15a agreement is currently being negotiated between the federal and state governments, as the current regulation expires at the end of August. The details will be revealed later today (Friday). It is expected the government will announce payments of a  “kindergarten billion” distributed over the next five years. This will mean Austria’s federal states will receive money to expand their offer in the compulsory kindergarten year before school, and to give better language support. The agreement is already drawing criticism for not including enough quality criteria around group sizes or care. 

Virologist calms fears over monkey pox in Austria

The virologist Norbert Nowotny has sought to reassure people in Austria over the recent outbreaks of monkey pox which have been seen around the globe, in an interview with Puls 24

So far there have been no cases in Austria, but the virologist said it was possible there would be one or two imported cases. For people with a healthy immune system monkey pox was “no big deal” he said. However in immunocompromised people, the infection can be more severe.

Gewessler calls for Austria to adapt “circular economy”

Leonore Gewessler, Austria’s Green Minister for the Environment is working on a strategy for a circular economy, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing and recycling existing materials and products rather than buying new ones. She said repairs were an important factor to allow Austria to become climate-neutral by 2050 and operate sustainably. In order for long-lasting devices and repairs to be better established on the market, many other coordinated measures are needed in addition to the new repair bonus – as is the case for the entire strategy itself, which could be completed by June.

READ MORE: Repair bonus: How to get money back when electrical items break in Austria

Law changes to give more support to displaced people from Ukraine

Austria’s laws will change to give more support for people displaced from Ukraine, despite the ‘no’ votes of the FPÖ. Ukrainians have now been included in an Integration Act, giving them access to German and orientation courses. It should become easier for Ukrainians to enter the labour market, and have their educational qualifications and professional qualifications recognised, broadcaster ORF reports.

European parliament votes in favour of sanctions against Austria’s former foreign minister

The European Parliament voted by a large majority in favor of sanctions against politicians and Europeans who draw large amounts of money from Russia on Thursday, naming Austria’s  former FPÖ Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl along with Germany’s ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. 

The text also mentioned Austria’s former Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel (ÖVP), noting he had “recently resigned” from his office in a Russian company in contrast to politicians such as Kneissl, broadcaster ORF reports.

Payments for Russian gas can be made in roubles, according to ‘EU circles’ 

According to information from EU Commission circles, gas importers such as Austria are also allowed to open a rouble account with the Russian Gazprombank as long as they pay their bills in the agreed currencies, euros or dollars, to another account. Commission officials clarified on Thursday that this would be in line with EU sanctions. The exchange of western currencies into roubles would then have to be carried out via the second account on the Russian side.

The commission recommended states should not set up rouble accounts if possible, but this recommendation has no legal consequences, broadcaster ORF reports. 

At the end of April, Austria’s ÖVP Chancellor, Karl Nehammer, said that it was “fake news from Russian propaganda” that states such as Austria were willing to pay for the gas in roubles and insisted Austria’s energy company, OMV, would continue to pay for gas deliveries from Russia in euros. The Polish politician and former EU Council President Donald Tusk then accused Austria and Germany of having entered the “rouble zone”.

 The Russian energy company Gazprom has halted its gas  supplies to Poland and Bulgaria since they refused to pay for their gas in roubles.