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

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

Today in Austria: A roundup of the latest news on Tuesday
Covid tests being analysed in Vienna. Photo: Alex Halada/AFP

Vienna’s Natural History Museum returns human remains to Hawaii

The museum is giving the looted skulls of two Hawaiians, a man and a woman, to representatives of a Hawaiian NGO.

The remains ended up in the museum’s collection after an English explorer stole them from a grave in the 1800s, according to the museum, after which they were held in a collection in the UK before being donated to the Austrian museum. A commission of experts, including the Natural History Museum’s director, was recently established to work out procedures for dealing with the colonial legacy in Austria’s museums.

Covid contact tracing has broken down

In the first week of February, of all confirmed cases of Covid in Austria, the source of the infection was only known in eight percent of cases. This proportion has been falling steadily since the start of the year.

Due to the fast spread of the currently dominant Omicron variant, it has been hard for Austria’s contact tracers to keep up with the high number of cases, and several regions had already announced that they had basically given up on contact tracing efforts to focus resources elsewhere.

Austria’s Foreign Minister criticises withdrawal of foreign embassy staff from Ukraine

He said that this action, which several western countries including the US have taken, sent a “questionable sign” to Ukraine residents and that Austrian staff would remain in the country for the time being. Minister Alexander Schallenberg also criticised US President Joe Biden’s word choice after the latter said the crisis posed the danger of a “world war”.

It’s ‘Equal Pay Day’ in Austria…

…but it’s not something to celebrate. That’s because February 15th is the 46th working day of the year, and on average that’s the proportion of the year that women in Austria have been working “for free”, based on the 12.7 percent gap in average salaries between men and women. The gap has reduced slightly since last year, but Austria still has one of the biggest gender wage gaps within the EU.

Lidl increases starting salaries

Staying on the topic of pay but onto a more positive note for workers, discount retailer Lidl announced that from March 1st, it will increase its minimum full-time wage to €2,090 gross per month. That’s 16 percent higher than the retail union’s collective agreement requires.

Lidl is currently advertising for around 900 open positions. Its Austrian headquarters are in Salzburg.

Applications are open for vaccine mandate exemptions

This applies to people who are not able to get vaccinated against Covid-19 due to medical reasons. That includes for example recent organ transplant recipients, cancer patients and people with certain autoimmune diseases.

The exact application process varies between the regions, but generally you will first need to go to a doctor who is able to issue the medical exemption certificate, and then upload this proof and an official ID to the regional online portal. Here are the links for Vienna, Styria, Vorarlberg, Lower Austria and Burgenland for example.

Talks in Vienna today over city protests

Protests against Austria’s Covid measures and vaccine mandate have taken place weekly in Vienna’s city centre, with businesses complaining that footfall and their revenues have taken a hit as a result. This afternoon, the Interior Ministry is holding talks with representatives of local businesses, police and others to find a solution.

What happened to Austria’s vaccine lottery?

After regional vaccine lotteries, the government earlier in the winter announced plans for a nationwide version as a way of offering an incentive for people to get the jab, but this is now off the cards as Chancellor Karl Nehammer confirmed in an interview with the Krone Zeitung this weekend. Instead, the Green Party has proposed using the allocated money to give a bonus to people who have been key workers during the pandemic, such as healthcare staff.

Winter Olympics update

Austria has now earned 16 medals in this year’s Winter Olympics: six gold, six silver and four bronze, which puts it fourth in the medals table.

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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.