Will Austria announce further relaxations of Covid measures this week?

There are positive signs that Austria may have reached the peak of its Omicron wave in some regions, with a declining 14-day trend in Vienna, Salzburg and Tyrol, but what does that mean for the future of Austria's Covid measures?

Will Austria announce further relaxations of Covid measures this week?
People with FFP2 protective face masks in Vienna. Photo: Alex Halada/AFP

All of Austria is still marked as ‘red’ or ‘very high risk’ by the Corona Commission, with a nationwide 14-day incidence rate approaching 2,500 (new confirmed cases per 100,000 residents).

To reach these classifications, each region is awarded a ‘risk number’ based on factors including new cases, hospital occupancy, but also things like the vaccination status and age of those who test positive. Vienna has the lowest risk number currently (1,144) but remains a long way from the under-100 value needed to lower its risk classification.

But despite repeated daily records for case numbers, the situation is not as severe as was first feared when the variant hit, with just under 200 people currently in Austria’s intensive care units for Covid-19, a number that was around 600 in December.

And Vienna, Salzburg and Tyrol — the countries which saw the quickest initial spread of Omicron — are showing signs that they may have passed the peak.

Despite being one of the countries with the strictest Covid rules in Western Europe, Austria has already begun to relax its restrictions.

As of Saturday, proof of 2G is no longer required for non-essential retail or for cultural venues like museums, libraries and galleries, while the 10pm curfew for restaurants was pushed back to midnight the week before.

On Monday, Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein promised that there would be further relaxations in March, saying that this was possible due to the apparent drop in severe cases, which he attributed to Austria’s high rate of booster vaccinations.

Any further changes decided at the summit should be presented in detail on February 19th, according to Mückstein, who said he wanted to present a plan that looked beyond March.

Some of the rules still in place include FFP2 mask requirements in most public places (for example in shops, museums, on public transport and in restaurants except when seated); a 2G requirement for restaurants which is already set to be extended to 3G from Saturday February 19th; and a 3G requirement for workplaces as well as a recommendation to work from home if possible.

In neighbouring Germany, plans are reportedly underway for almost all Covid measures to be lifted in a phased plan by March 20th.

And ahead of a summit on Wednesday between Austria’s government and regional leaders, voices are growing stronger in favour of Austria following a similar path.

Of course, the other key topic up for debate at the summit will be Austria’s highly controversial Covid-19 vaccination mandate.

Although it came into force from the start of the month, the first checks and fines are not set to happen until March, and with the apparent signs towards a decline in the Omicron wave, more and more regional governors are calling for a rethink.

Vorarlberg’s governor has suggested keeping the mandate but not issuing any fines, while the governors of Salzburg and Carinthia have called for the proportionality of the law to be reassessed.

Besides these major questions, further issues on the agenda for the summit include whether to evaluate Austria’s use of free Covid tests, and whether to change the rules for quarantine after contact with a positive case or a confirmed infection.

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Will Austria’s vaccine mandate go ahead?

Following the announcement of Austria’s “spring awakening” and relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions, the big question is whether the planned vaccine mandate will go ahead.

Will Austria’s vaccine mandate go ahead?

On Wednesday, the Federal Government announced that most Covid-19 restrictions will be relaxed next month in what has been dubbed Austria’s “spring awakening” by Chancellor Karl Nehammer.

From March 5th, nationwide 2G and 3G requirements (proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test) to enter venues will be removed, as well as the removal of the current midnight curfew for restaurants and a reopening for night clubs.

Proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test will then only be required in what the government called “particularly vulnerable settings” such as hospitals and nursing homes. 

READ MORE: Covid-19: Austria to remove most restrictions from March 5th

For travellers entering Austria, 3G rules will still apply but the 2G+ rule (two doses of the vaccination and either a booster or negative PCR test) will also be dropped from March 5th.

As of the same date, the current requirement to wear an FFP2 mask in all public indoor spaces will be relaxed, with mask-wearing only mandatory on public transport, in essential retail stores (which mainly refers to supermarkets and pharmacies), and in hospitals and nursing homes. 

The only outlier is Vienna where the 2G rule will remain past March 5th and it is expected that if nightclubs reopen in the capital they will be subject to 2G+ rules.

OPINION: Austria’s vaccine mandate is politically high-risk with limited benefits

But where does this leave the mandatory vaccination law (Impfpflicht) that is planned to be implemented from next month?

Will Austria scrap the Covid vaccine mandate?

After the announcement on Wednesday, Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein, from The Greens, spoke to ZIB2 about the relaxation of restrictions and said he “assumed” the vaccination mandate would still be implemented from March 15th.

Additionally, Mückstein said it is expected that the planned penalties for unvaccinated people will also be enforced from the same date. 

READ ALSO: Could free Covid-19 tests be coming to an end in Austria?

However, he said it is likely that Austria’s testing strategy will change in the spring with the possibility of the end to free Covid-19 tests (apart from for symptomatic people and official tests), which has so far cost around €2.6 billion.

Mückstein said: ​​”I don’t think that we will differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated people in terms of test costs.”

EXPLAINED: How Austria’s vaccine mandate will work

The Federal Government has now asked the Committee of the National Covid Crisis Coordination (GECKO) to devise a new testing strategy for Austria, which is expected to be implemented in April.

In Austrian media, the announcement about the removal of 2G and 3G rules from early March for most settings has led to questions surrounding the future of the planned vaccination law.

The Kronen Zeitung reports that the Federal Government will make a final decision on the implementation of the law before mid March.

Earlier in February, politicians and virologists raised questions over the compulsory vaccination scheme, putting the controversial plan in jeopardy. 

The governors of the Austrian states of Carinthia, Upper Austria and Salzburg are questioning whether the compulsory vaccination law should come into force in March, or whether other solutions should be pursued. 

The governors expressed doubts due to the relatively stable numbers in the hospitals, which are a combined consequence of the current vaccination coverage as well as the lower potency of the Omicron variant. 

Carinthia’s governor Peter Kaiser of the opposition Social Democrats (SPÖ) party said there should be a “constant review” to see if the law is still proportional.

Salzburg’s governor Wilfried Haslauer, who is in the governing Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) party also called for an evaluation before the law comes into force on March 15th. 

Thomas Stelzer (ÖVP), governor of Upper Austria, said he supported the idea of a vaccine mandate but questioned whether Austria should still go ahead with it. 

Stelzer said he felt such a scheme was “useful, but whether it is really necessary… remains open and should be discussed.”