Austria’s government presents COVID-19 exit schedule

"All ideas of herd immunity have been clearly refuted by this sample," said Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, adding that tens of thousands of deaths had been prevented due to the early restrictions. EPA-EFE/HELMUT FOHRINGER / POOL

While small shops in Austria will be allowed to reopen on 14 April and all trade will be permitted from 1 May onwards, gastronomy and hotels will follow in mid-May at the earliest, with current initial restrictions extended until the end of April. According to Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the aim is “to get out of the crisis faster than others”. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Austria’s four-man coronavirus crisis management team – Chancellor Kurz (ÖVP), Vice-Chancellor Werner Kogler (Greens), Health Minister Rudolf Anschober (Greens) and Interior Minister Karl Nehammer – entered the press conference carrying light blue protective masks on Monday (6 April).

Those who have been paying attention already know what to expect.

Kurz outlined the news, presented the figures and immediately nipped any relaxation ideas in the bud: he called for discipline, as there cannot be any easing just yet. The existing initial restrictions will remain in place until the end of April, and the obligation to wear face masks will be extended from supermarkets to public transport.

This time, Kurz repeatedly emphasised that Austria had not only acted correctly, but more correctly than other countries, and can, therefore, now also be a pioneer in ‘opening up’.

The goal is “to get out of the crisis faster than others”.

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A gradual opening

After weeks of uncertainty, Kurz now presented the long-awaited schedule.

On 14 April, small shops (under 400 square metres), as well as hardware stores and garden centres will open. Masks will be compulsory inside, with a maximum of one person per 20 square metres.

On 1 May, all shops will open unless decided otherwise, and restaurants and hotels will follow by mid-May at the earliest. However, the government reserves the right to pull the “emergency brake” at any time and reverse the openings if the numbers demand it.

There will still be no events until the end of June and schools will continue with homeschooling until mid-May. For students, the current semester will probably be completely digital, and examinations and research at universities will continue to take place, as long as it remains possible.

The issue of freedom to travel has become a particularly hotly debated topic and Kurz caused a stir at the weekend with a broadcast message announcing that freedom to travel will only be granted once a vaccine is ready for use.

The chancellor repeated on Monday that it will be difficult to travel before the crisis is resolved, adding that a health certificate might be required. At the EU level, discussions are currently underway on how to solve this problem between member states, he added.

Later this week, the federal government will hold a separate press conference on the freedom to travel.

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At home for Easter

The ‘Easter decree announced at the weekend, which aimed to relax the restrictions and allow hosting up to five persons from outside the household, has caused some confusion.

As citizens are only allowed to leave the apartment for strictly specified reasons and not to “visit” someone, how should one get to the Easter celebrations at all?

At the press conference, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober apologised for the confusion caused this weekend and made it clear that the ‘Easter Decree’ was cancelled: Austrians are to stay at home over Easter.

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Sharpest decline within the EU

However, Anschober did present a few encouraging figures.

The daily increase in the number of new infections diagnosed has dropped to 1.6%, which corresponds to the doubling of infections every 16.5 days.

Based on the “alarming figures” from mid-March, this was the largest decrease within the EU, as the number of people who fell ill during that same time has been stable since 1 April.

The long-term strategy for the rest of the year and beyond was not yet fully presented, but the government let it be known that it prefers ‘containment-access’ rather than ‘herd immunity’.

According to Kurz, the first random tests would suggest that about 1% of the Austrian population has been infected. “All ideas of herd immunity have been clearly refuted by this sample,” said Kurz, adding that tens of thousands of deaths have been prevented due to the early restrictions.

The health minister announced containment as an accompanying measure, adding that cases of illness needed to be isolated even more consistently. This, he said, requires more precise controlling, which is why the government will increase the use of forecasting tools and random tests, as well as expand the use of antibody tests.

The chancellor also explained that the containment strategy consists of isolating infected persons, testing suspected cases and tracking infections.

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The tracking-app remains voluntary

A Red Cross smartphone app, which acts as a contact diary where users can enter who and when they have met, will be used to track coronavirus infections. If someone turns out to have been infected, they could warn all contacts.

Parliament speaker Wolfgang Sobotka of the conservative ÖVP had said over the weekend that the app should become mandatory, while data protection experts reacted with indignation.

But Kurz now made it clear that if the app is implemented, its use should only be voluntary. That is because tracking is not just done digitally, but also in conversation.


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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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