Will Austria announce further relaxations of Covid measures this week?

There are positive signs that Austria may have reached the peak of its Omicron wave in some regions, with a declining 14-day trend in Vienna, Salzburg and Tyrol, but what does that mean for the future of Austria's Covid measures?

Will Austria announce further relaxations of Covid measures this week?
No more isolation requirement for infected people in Austria - as long as they wear FFP2 masks. Photo: Alex Halada/AFP

All of Austria is still marked as ‘red’ or ‘very high risk’ by the Corona Commission, with a nationwide 14-day incidence rate approaching 2,500 (new confirmed cases per 100,000 residents).

To reach these classifications, each region is awarded a ‘risk number’ based on factors including new cases, hospital occupancy, but also things like the vaccination status and age of those who test positive. Vienna has the lowest risk number currently (1,144) but remains a long way from the under-100 value needed to lower its risk classification.

But despite repeated daily records for case numbers, the situation is not as severe as was first feared when the variant hit, with just under 200 people currently in Austria’s intensive care units for Covid-19, a number that was around 600 in December.

And Vienna, Salzburg and Tyrol — the countries which saw the quickest initial spread of Omicron — are showing signs that they may have passed the peak.

Despite being one of the countries with the strictest Covid rules in Western Europe, Austria has already begun to relax its restrictions.

As of Saturday, proof of 2G is no longer required for non-essential retail or for cultural venues like museums, libraries and galleries, while the 10pm curfew for restaurants was pushed back to midnight the week before.

On Monday, Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein promised that there would be further relaxations in March, saying that this was possible due to the apparent drop in severe cases, which he attributed to Austria’s high rate of booster vaccinations.

Any further changes decided at the summit should be presented in detail on February 19th, according to Mückstein, who said he wanted to present a plan that looked beyond March.

Some of the rules still in place include FFP2 mask requirements in most public places (for example in shops, museums, on public transport and in restaurants except when seated); a 2G requirement for restaurants which is already set to be extended to 3G from Saturday February 19th; and a 3G requirement for workplaces as well as a recommendation to work from home if possible.

In neighbouring Germany, plans are reportedly underway for almost all Covid measures to be lifted in a phased plan by March 20th.

And ahead of a summit on Wednesday between Austria’s government and regional leaders, voices are growing stronger in favour of Austria following a similar path.

Of course, the other key topic up for debate at the summit will be Austria’s highly controversial Covid-19 vaccination mandate.

Although it came into force from the start of the month, the first checks and fines are not set to happen until March, and with the apparent signs towards a decline in the Omicron wave, more and more regional governors are calling for a rethink.

Vorarlberg’s governor has suggested keeping the mandate but not issuing any fines, while the governors of Salzburg and Carinthia have called for the proportionality of the law to be reassessed.

Besides these major questions, further issues on the agenda for the summit include whether to evaluate Austria’s use of free Covid tests, and whether to change the rules for quarantine after contact with a positive case or a confirmed infection.

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Could Austria be spared another wave of Covid this winter?

Specialists in Austria - and worldwide - can't agree if the Covid-19 pandemic is nearing its end, and many remain cautious. Here's what you need to know.

Could Austria be spared another wave of Covid this winter?

The World Health Organisation’s head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently said that the pandemic was not over yet, but that “the end is in sight”. Similarly, US President Joe Biden stated: “The pandemic is over, but we still have a problem with Covid.”

In Austria, experts are cautiously optimistic. Dorothee von Laer, a virologist at the Medical University of Innsbruck, said: “A pandemic is over when a high level of immunity has built up in the population, and that is probably the case everywhere in the world except in China”, Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard reported.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to get the new adapted Covid-19 vaccine in Austria

Herwig Kollaritsch, infectologist and member of Austria’s national vaccination panel (NIG), has a similar view. “We are increasingly getting into a somewhat better situation because the immunity level in the population is rising due to many vaccinations and infections.”

Though he is more cautious: “We have always had problems due to a change of variants, and even now, we are absolutely not safe from surprises”.

New variants

The biggest fear ahead of winter is precisely that: a change of variants, specialists say. Especially since more and more omicron mutations are being found and they can circumvent the immune defences quite well, Ulrich Elling, a molecular biologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, told Der Standard.

However, since all the current mutations are still omicron variants, the severe courses of the disease continue to be rare.

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

“We still use hospitalisation and death rates as parameters. So when it comes to that, we are out of the woods. But still, a lot of people will get sick – not very seriously, but they will get sick,” Kollaritsch said.

Elling agrees: “Of course, statements about the supposed end of the pandemic are striking a chord with people at the moment. We all want it to be over. Nevertheless, the numbers will rise again. Above all, the new variants escape our immune response more than any other variant before.”

For him, it’s wrong to say that the pandemic is over or that there won’t be a new infection wave in winter. Even though they may be of milder courses of the disease, the virus is still out there and will infect people in the coming months, he believes.

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