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TODAY IN AUSTRIA

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

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

St Stephen's Cathedral
Pranksters woke up people living in the First District of Vienna by making the bells of St. Stephen's Cathedral ring out at 2am on Wednesday. ((JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Vienna’s Mayor to announce Covid-19 measures 

Vienna’s Mayor Michael Ludwig will meet with experts later today to discuss the next Covid-19 measures. An announcement is expected in the afternoon.

The mayor has already indicated Austria’s capital city will take a different path than the federal government.

The city’s Health Councillor Peter Hacker said on Wednesday that he was “stunned by the way an experiment is being carried out on over eight million Austrians.”

He was referring to plans to limit testing and reduce quarantine for unvaccinated contacts in April.

READ MORE: Vienna to debate Covid measures on Thursday

It is not clear if the Alles Gurgelt test system in Vienna will continue to operate, or how the new testing regime will affect schools. Employees of Lifebrain, the company which carries out the city’s ‘gurgle tests’, have been told they may face redundancy according to the Kronen Zeitung newspaper.

Further details have emerged of the scheme. According to the Austrian press agency APA, unvaccinated people who have contact with someone infected with Covid-19 will have access to free tests, while vaccinated people, who are not considered “contact people” in this case, will not.

Tests will be free of charge for people with symptoms. There will also be no price caps on tests.

READ MORE: Free Covid-19 tests to be limited in Austria from mid-April

Austria’s Covid-19 infections expected to keep rising

Austria’s Covid-19 infections are expected to keep rising according to the country’s forecasting group. This is despite a record number of infections having been reached in Austria with almost 60,000 cases reported in 24 hours on Wednesday.

The number of Covid-19 patients in hospitals has increased by 46 people to 3,033, though of these, 221 are in intensive care units (ICU). Since last week, the number of seriously ill ICU patients has increased by 39. 

READ MORE: 

Former Austrian foreign minister received jewellery from Putin worth €50,000 

Austria’s former foreign minister Karin Kneissl who now sits on the Board of Directors of the Russian state gas company Rosneft, received sapphire earrings worth around €50,000 euros from Vladimir Putin when he was a guest at her wedding, the Kronen Zeitung newspaper reports.

Up to 200,000 refugees could come from Ukraine to Austria

Experts predict that Austria will have to prepare for up to 200,000 refugees from Ukraine who will stay in the country at least for the short term, Der Standard newspaper reports.

Almost 5,000 Ukrainian refugees have already registered to stay in Austria, mostly in Vienna and Burgenland. Austria will take a further 2,000 vulnerable refugees from Moldova this weekend. 

READ MORE: How Austria and Austrians are helping Ukrainian refugees

Thousands of beds are being made available in Austria for refugees fleeing Ukraine. In the next few days, space for 1,200 refugees will be made available in the Messe Wien near the Prater in Vienna. There will be hot food, medical help, support and a large play area for children.

A Graz exhibition centre started offering accommodation on Wednesday. Broadcaster ORF reports 200 people registered in the Styrian city in the first three hours. 

Austrians support increase in defence spending

A recent survey conducted on behalf of the Ministry of Defence in Austria found around 60 percent of Austrians want an increase in defence spending.

They also believe that the army should again be geared more towards being able to ward off military attacks on Austria, broadcaster ORF reports. The survey was carried out between March 2nd and 7th among 800 Austrians aged 16 and over.

However, a majority of Austrians want the country to stay neutral: 83 percent are in favour of maintaining the country’s neutrality, while only 16 percent are against it.

READ MORE: What would Austrian style neutrality mean for Ukraine? 

Calls to regulate fuel prices

Austria’s opposition SPÖ party is calling for the federal government to ensure that falling worldwide oil prices are reflected at the pump. The SPÖ-led state of Carinthia also called for a price cap on fuel. In response, Austria’s Economics Minister Margarete Schramböck (ÖVP) said the government was monitoring the situation closely and pointed out that Austria’s petrol prices were in line with the rest of Europe. 

Vice-Chancellor Werner Kogler (Greens) told broadcaster ORF the high fuel prices could be taken to the Federal Competition Authority (BWB) to ensure fair prices.

UPDATED: How to save money on fuel costs in Austria

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TODAY IN AUSTRIA

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.

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