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

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

A street in the Austrian capital of Vienna during lockdown.
A couple walk past closed boutique stores on the Graben, a street in the city centre of Vienna that is normally packed with crowds of people on November 22, 2021. - Austria has entered a nationwide lockdown in an effort to contain spiraling coronavirus infections. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Austria to relax almost all Covid-19 rules tomorrow

On Saturday, March 5th, Austria will relax many of its rules in place to stop the spread of Covid-19 despite large numbers of infections. There were 31,566 cases on Thursdays and all states in Austria are still classified as “red” by the Covid-19 traffic light commission.

However, the numbers of patients in Austria’s ICUs have stayed low during the Omicron wave, with a third of the number compared to the previous Delta wave. According to a draft of the regulation seen by Der Standard newspaper the new rules will be as follows. 

READ MORE: Everything that changes about life in Austria in March 2022

  • No more 3G rules (having to show you are vaccinated, recovered or have tested negative for Covid-19) for restaurants, events or shopping. The 3G rules will only remain in nursing homes and hospitals. 
  • Nightclubs and late night restaurants are allowed to open again, theoretically already at midnight on Saturday night.
  • Masks will no longer be mandatory except for places where vulnerable people have to go out for essentials. Masks will still be required in supermarkets, pharmacies, on public transport, in petrol stations and in banks.  
  • Vienna will have different rules to the rest of Austria. In the capital, only people who have been vaccinated or recovered from Covid-19 (the 2G rule) will be allowed into restaurants and cafes, as well as late night venues. There will be no 2G-plus rule for late night venues as previously rumoured. 

Health Minister resigned due to stress of job

Wolfgang Mückstein resigned on Thursday as Austria’s Health Minister having spent less than a year in post. In a televised statement, in which he could be seen wearing his trademark sneakers, the practicing doctor said he was no longer able to give 100 percent every day to combat the pandemic.

READ MORE: Austria health minister quits citing exhaustion and threats

He also said he and his family experienced daily threats and it had become difficult to live a normal life at the same time as needing constant police protection. The new Minister of Health is the Vorarlberg State Councillor Johannes Rauch (Greens).

Austria plans increase in defence spending

Austria’s Finance Minister Magnus Brunner (ÖVP) has said “it makes sense” to increase the budget for defence spending according to the Austrian Press Agency (APA). Currently Austria spends about 0.74 percent of its GDP on its defence budget. Austria has no navy and is not a member of NATO.

It is not expected to spend two percent of GDP on defence, like Germany, but a comparable amount to other neutral countries, such as Switzerland, Brunner said. He also pointed out security investments are used to protect cyber security, economic resilience and energy supply as well as national security.

St Stephen's Cathedral
Vienna’s St Stephen’s Cathedral has been lit up in the colours of the Ukrainian flag. (Photo by Stadt Wien).

Shelter opens in Vienna’s main train station

The charity Caritas has set up an emergency shelter for people who have fled from Ukraine at Vienna Central Station (Wien Hauptbanhof), which offers spaces for 50 people.

Crime related to right wing extremism on rise in Austria

The number of right-wing extremist crimes rose sharply in the pandemic year of 2021. A total of 1,053 crimes of this nature were recorded, compared to 895 the year before, broadcaster ORF reports.

The figures were released by the Interior Ministry in response to a parliamentary question by Sabine Schatz (SPÖ). The SPÖ spokeswoman said the  right-wing extremist scene had been strengthened by protests against government measures taken during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Lockdown for unvaccinated only “slightly effective”

Researchers from the University of Vienna found that Austria’s recent lockdown for the unvaccinated in January was only “slightly effective” compared to previous lockdowns for everyone.

Researchers asked more than 1,200 people were asked about their behaviour in January in an online survey.

READ MORE: Will Austria’s vaccine mandate go ahead?

Speaking to Radio Vienna political scientist Julia Partheymüller said despite the lockdown, unvaccinated people still increased their social contacts in January. Unvaccinated people were also moving around more than people who were vaccinated.

Former ÖVP Family Minster arrested

The former ÖVP Family Minister Sophie Karmasin was arrested on Thursday afternoon, the Austrian Press Agency (APA) confirmed, following reports by Der Standard newspaper.  The Economic and Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (WKStA) confirmed  the arrest as part of the investigation into advertising and surveys by political parties.

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For members


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.