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

Number of Covid cases going down, Strache bribery trial scheduled and plenty more news on Thursday.

covid tests
The number of new cases in Austria is decreasing - but so are the Covid tests being taken. (Photo by Mufid Majnun on Unsplash)

Number of Covid cases going down

For the first time since January, some federal states in Austria will have an “orange” traffic light, meaning they will not belong to the “high-risk zone”, according to Austria’s coronavirus commission.

Since January 13th, the “corona traffic light” has been red in all Austrian states. Burgenland, Vorarlberg, and Carinthia are now the only states in the red area.

This Wednesday, April 13th, the Health Ministry reported 12,471 cases of new infections in the country. There are currently 2,337 people in hospitals due to the disease, 150 fewer than the previous day. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 16,324 people have died from Covid-19 in Austria, 38 of them in the last 24 hours.

Case numbers are going down, but so are testing numbers. On Wednesday, the government reported that 177,359 PCR tests were taken, compared with 692,522 on the last Wednesday in March. Since April 1st, Austria no longer provides free unlimited tests to its citizens.

READ ALSO: Vienna: How tourists, visitors (and residents) can get free Covid tests

Complaints about mask requirements

Trade representatives are asking for an end to the mask requirement in stores and shopping areas in Austria. Currently, there is an FFP2 mask mandate in all indoor spaces in the country, as reported.

The national regulation on this expires on Saturday, March 16th. However, the government is still analysing whether it would be extended, Der Standard said.

Graz virologist Klaus Vander told broadcaster ORF that the end of the general FFP2 obligation indoors would be an understandable step and justifiable from a virological point of view.

“The currently favourable epidemiological situation certainly allows a general elimination of the mask requirement. However, a little differentiation must be made here: especially in health care, the mask should still be worn at least in dealing with patients or with those to be cared for”, he said.

READ ALSO: Reader question: When is Austria dropping the mask mandate?

Former vice-chancellor back in courts

Former vice-chancellor and former FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache will see Austrian courts again in June as he faces accusations of bribery.

According to the indictment, a donation to an association close to the FPÖ was allegedly a bribe by real estate entrepreneur Siegfried Stieglitz, a co-defendant in the process. The executive was named to a supervisory board position in an Austrian state-run company, ASFINAG.

From October 2017, the Styrian real estate entrepreneur transferred a total of € 10,000 to the FPÖ-related association “Austria in Motion” in four tranches of € 2,500 each, ORF reported.

Strache is said to have ensured that Stieglitz finally ended up at ASFINAG, text messages show. The presumption of innocence applies to both defendants.

READ ALSO: ‘Ibizagate’: What you need to know about the Austrian political corruption scandal

Nehammer says “gas supplies are secured”

Chancellor Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) has given further insights into his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin raised the gas issue himself during his visit to Moscow on Monday, Nehammer said. The Russian leader has stated that “the gas supply is secured. As contractually promised, Russia will deliver the quantities, and payment can continue in euros.”

Nehammer also continued to reject a gas embargo against Russia.

“Demanding this gas embargo would mean that both industry and households suffer serious damage”, he said. Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary are highly dependent on Russian gas.

READ ALSO: Is Austria set for a gas price hike – and what can you do to avoid it?

More than 15,000 applicants for fewer than 2,000 spots in medicine

This year, 15,788 people registered for the joint admission procedures of the Medical Universities in Vienna, Innsbruck, and Graz and the Medical Faculty of the Johannes Kepler University Linz.

For the academic year 2022/23, a total of 1,850 spots are available for new students at the universities. At least 95 per cent of the vacant spots are reserved for EU citizens, and at least 75 per cent are exclusive for students who have a school leaving certificate (Matura) from Austria.

The exams, which also evaluate “social-emotional competencies” as well as cognitive skills like memory, will take place on July 8th.

READ ALSO: What is Austria’s Matura exam and why do some want it abolished?

Traffic expected for Easter weekend

From Friday afternoon, there will be long traffic jams, especially on the motorways in and around the federal capital Vienna, the Donauuferautobahn (A22), Südautobahn (A2), Südosttangente (A23) and Westautobahn (A1), according to the Austrian motor association ARBÖ.

Traffic jams are also expected on the city exits, such as Altmannsdorfer Straße, Hadikgasse, Triester Straße, and in the inner-city.

In Linz, drivers should plan for longer waiting times until the evening, especially on the Mühlkreisautobahn and the Ebelsberg bypass and Kremstal Straße (B139) on the Traun bypass.

In Graz, Conrad-von-Hötzendorf-Straße, Merangasse, Plüddemanngasse and Südautobahn (A2) between Graz/Ost junctions and Graz/West junctions are considered classic traffic jam routes.

READ ALSO: Easter holidays: What to expect if you are coming to Austria

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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.