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COVID-19 RULES

EXPLAINED: Austria’s new Covid-19 testing rules

Unlimited free Covid-19 tests in Austria will come to an end in April. What are the new testing rules and how will they be controlled?

A health worker prepares a coronavirus antigen rapid test at the new coronavirus test center in the Orangery of the Schoenbrunn Palace. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)
A health worker prepares a coronavirus antigen rapid test at the coronavirus test center in the Orangery of the Schönbrunn Palace. Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP.

From April 1st, the number of free Covid-19 tests will be limited to 10 per month for every person living in Austria. 

This is a stark change in Austria’s approach to managing Covid-19 and coincides with an end to full quarantine for close contacts of positive cases from March 21st.

However, there are questions about how the new rules will be implemented and monitored. 

Here’s what you need to know.

READ MORE: Almost 60,000: Austria hits record daily Covid case total

What are the new Covid-19 testing rules?

With the new Covid-19 testing rules, Austrian residents will be able to access five PCR and five antigen tests per month for free from April 1st.

According to Der Standard, PCR tests will be available through state-specific programs, although the logistics are yet to be confirmed. Antigen tests, also known as “living room tests” because they are administered at home, will be distributed via pharmacies.

Prices for additional tests if the monthly free quota has already been used will be decided by individual test centres.

So far, widespread free testing has been the cornerstone of Austria’s Covid strategy, with one of the world’s most extensive testing schemes. 

Since the start of the pandemic, Austria has spent €3 billion on Covid-19 tests. 

How will compliance with the rules be monitored?

It has not yet been confirmed how the number of tests issued to a person each month will be monitored. 

But during the announcement on Tuesday, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) said people can only submit five free tests per month, which means unused tests can’t be passed on to another person.

What about tests for people with Covid-19 symptoms?

The new rules exclude additional free tests for symptomatic cases and close contacts, although fully vaccinated people (with at least two doses) are no longer considered as close contacts of infected people.

In these cases, free PCR tests can be accessed by contacting the 1450 Covid-19 helpline.

Free tests will also continue to be available for people in high-risk settings, like hospitals and schools.

READ NEXT: ANALYSIS: Are Vienna’s tighter Covid measures ‘a mistake’?

What are the rules for unvaccinated people?

The new testing rules apply to both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

However, unvaccinated people will be impacted by the new quarantine rules for close contacts that will allow them to go to work and shopping, but not visit gastronomy (cafes, bars and restaurants) or attend events.

Currently, proof of 3G (tested, vaccinated or recovered) is not needed to enter gastronomy outlets nationwide, with an exception in Vienna where 2G rules (proof of vaccination or recovery) are still in force.

Additionally, the Green Pass does not show if someone is a close contact, so it is not known how this will be monitored.

Do the new rules apply to everywhere in Austria?

The new testing rules apply nationwide but individual states can implement tougher restrictions if they choose to, as with previous Covid-19 rule changes.

Vienna is a prime example of this with stricter rules regarding 2G for gastronomy.

What are the reactions to the new rules?

Mayor of Vienna Michael Ludwig has already spoken out against the new testing rules and said Vienna might take a different approach. A meeting will be held in the Austrian capital on Thursday to discuss the situation.

On Wednesday, the Vienna Chamber of Commerce described the current unlimited free testing rule as “reasonable”.

Criticism has also come from Sigrid Pilz, the head of the Viennese Nursing and Patient Ombudsman, who said removing protection for children was “not acceptable”.

Currently in Vienna, around 345,000 Covid-19 tests are carried out every day. The new rules in April will mean only around 270,000 tests will be allowed.

READ ALSO: Vienna to debate Covid measures on Thursday

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COVID-19 ALERT

Will Austria bring back its mask mandate before autumn?

As Covid-19 infection numbers continue rising, Austria's government doesn't rule out a comeback of the mask requirement.

Will Austria bring back its mask mandate before autumn?

Austria has seen rising Covid-19 numbers for weeks, and the country’s traffic light commission has increased the risk rating of all federal states, with none currently designated as “low risk”.

Virologists and health experts have given many explanations for rising numbers and forecast that new infections, currently at more than 12,000 a day, could reach more than 30,000 in the next few weeks.

Austria’s Covid commission said that the omicron subvariant BA.4/BA.5 is a decisive factor in the increase, as it is considered more infectious. “Additionally, an increased proportion of travel-associated cases has been observed in recent weeks”, the commission stated.

READ ALSO: LATEST: These are the Covid rules in Austria and Vienna from June 2022

Dorothee von Laer, a Med-Uni Innsbruck virologist, told Der Standard that the new subvariant could be responsible for a new wave as “the protection we have from BA1 infections, and from vaccinations, is not so good against BA.4/BA.5”.

“So people who were infected early on, or who are only vaccinated, have of course some protection against hospitalisation, but almost no or very little protection against infection”, she said.

Von Laer mentioned other factors that likely contributed to the increasing numbers, including the fact that people have stopped wearing masks after the requirement was dropped in most of Austria.

Are masks about to make a comeback?

When Austria’s federal government announced they would drop the Covid mask mandate, they phrased it as a “pause” to the FFP2 masks, which were still mandatory in essential trade and public transport.

Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) said that the mask requirement will be “paused”, as the pandemic is not over yet, and that people should be prepared for a resumption of the rules after summer, as The Local reported.

BACKGROUND: Austria to ‘pause’ Covid mask mandate from June 1st

Many experts believe FFP2 masks won’t be optional for long if numbers continue rising. Von Laer said, “we will probably have to resort to the mask again, even if the hospitals are not overcrowded because we want to protect the vulnerable people”.

The health minister had already stated that it is time people “take personal responsibility” so that they choose to wear masks in crowds or when close to vulnerable people.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

However, he recently added that if the situation “goes in the direction of overloading the health system, then, of course, I am also obliged to react”.

The minister also said he reassesses the situation every week, observing developments in other countries.

‘We will have to learn’

For Rauch, people will need to learn to live with the masks, as future waves can also be expected in the coming years. He added that we would have to learn to take personal responsibility, make self-assessments, and have solidarity.

READ ALSO: Austria sees scores of flight cancellations after airline staff contact Covid

He also assumes more flexible measures in the future. For example, public transport signs will ask for the mask mandate during morning traffic hours, but not on empty evening trains.

His goal, the minister stated, was to find a middle ground between demanding as few restrictions as possible and exercising caution.

Covid-19 stats

Austria on Wednesday reported 12,509 new coronavirus infections after 169,948 PCR tests, according to the Health Ministry.

There were 856 people in hospitals with Covid-19 and 47 in intensive care. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 18,779 people have died from the disease.

The country has just over 61 percent of its population with a valid vaccination pass.

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