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Austria to phase out mass Covid testing on 31st March

Austria to phase out mass Covid testing on 31st March
A health worker prepares a coronavirus antigen rapid test at the new coronavirus test center in the Orangery of the Schoenbrunn Palace on February 4, 2021 as Vienna expands its capacities for the rapid antigen test, amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

Austria's mass Covid testing scheme is set to be phased out from March 31st, replaced by a targeted testing program.

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Austria's mass testing strategy was one of the most comprehensive in the world, having cost an estimated 2.6 billion euros since the start of the pandemic. 

The centrepiece of the testing scheme was free antigen tests for Austrian residents. 

The country will then move to a more "targeted test strategy", Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein (Grüne) said at a press conference on Thursday. 

The amendment to the infection law approved this Thursday allows the Ministry to determine for what purpose, with which test methods, and at what frequency any screening programs at the federal government's expense could be carried out.

This would likely mean an end to Austria's free and readily available tests. However, Mückstein said, tests will "of course" remain free for those who need them. The minister said that many experts had been in favour of a "paradigm shift" in the test strategy, taking into account the new omicron variant. 

Mückstein praised Vienna's role in the test strategy, with easy PCR tests for anyone who wants to take them and several testing offers.

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Vienna's "special way"

At his press conference on 16 February, when he stated Vienna would keep many of the restrictions the federal government was lifting, the capital's Mayor Michael Ludwig (SPÖ) had defended the current testing strategy. 

Later, he pressed on the issue several times, saying he sees the PCR tests as "important in several ways", including taking people away from the chain of infection at an early stage.

Despite that, Ludwig also said the city would depend on federal funding to keep testing as it does. Today, Ludwig's party, SPÖ, criticised the "dismantling of the test regime" during the National Council session. 

The party's health secretary, Alois Stöger, alerted that the new rules would mean the government would start making decisions based on finances and cost instead of health and medical necessity. 

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