Austria to phase out mass Covid testing on 31st March

Austria's mass Covid testing scheme is set to be phased out from March 31st, replaced by a targeted testing program.

A Covid antigen test seen up close.
A health worker prepares a coronavirus antigen rapid test at the new coronavirus test center in the Orangery of the Schoenbrunn Palace on February 4, 2021 as Vienna expands its capacities for the rapid antigen test, amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

Austria’s mass testing strategy was one of the most comprehensive in the world, having cost an estimated 2.6 billion euros since the start of the pandemic. 

The centrepiece of the testing scheme was free antigen tests for Austrian residents. 

The country will then move to a more “targeted test strategy”, Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein (Grüne) said at a press conference on Thursday. 

The amendment to the infection law approved this Thursday allows the Ministry to determine for what purpose, with which test methods, and at what frequency any screening programs at the federal government’s expense could be carried out.

This would likely mean an end to Austria’s free and readily available tests. However, Mückstein said, tests will “of course” remain free for those who need them. The minister said that many experts had been in favour of a “paradigm shift” in the test strategy, taking into account the new omicron variant. 

Mückstein praised Vienna’s role in the test strategy, with easy PCR tests for anyone who wants to take them and several testing offers.

Vienna’s “special way”

At his press conference on 16 February, when he stated Vienna would keep many of the restrictions the federal government was lifting, the capital’s Mayor Michael Ludwig (SPÖ) had defended the current testing strategy. 

Later, he pressed on the issue several times, saying he sees the PCR tests as “important in several ways”, including taking people away from the chain of infection at an early stage.

Despite that, Ludwig also said the city would depend on federal funding to keep testing as it does. Today, Ludwig’s party, SPÖ, criticised the “dismantling of the test regime” during the National Council session. 

The party’s health secretary, Alois Stöger, alerted that the new rules would mean the government would start making decisions based on finances and cost instead of health and medical necessity. 

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

Federal government funding for free nationwide Covid-19 tests in Austria is scheduled to end next month, which could mean big changes to the testing strategy.

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

The topic of Covid-19 tests will be discussed at the Federal State Summit between the government and the Covid Crisis Commission on Wednesday with reports suggesting free tests could end when the funding expires next month.

According to Der Standard, ​​Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein has confirmed Austria’s testing strategy will be reviewed at the meeting, although it is unclear whether a decision will be made on Wednesday.

Currently, there is funding in place to provide free Covid-19 tests (antigen and PCR) in Austria until the end of March. If free tests are to continue past that date, a decision will have to be made by the Federal Government to extend the funding.

Chancellor Karl Nehammer has already voiced support for ending free tests and replacing them with a paid service. This call has been echoed by the governors of Tyrol, Vorarlberg, Upper Austria and Styria, who are all members of Nehammer’s conservative People’s Party (ÖVP).

However, a recent survey in Vienna showed that 71 percent of the city’s residents are in favour of keeping free Covid-19 tests. The study was conducted by Triple M Matzka Market and Opinion Research for the Vienna Health Authority (MA 15).

Vienna has long held the position of the most-tested state in Austria with more than 345,000 tests (on average) carried out in the capital every day.

So far, free testing has played a central role in Austria’s nationwide strategy in dealing with Covid-19.

In other Covid-19 news, a relaxation of measures for schools has already been announced with an end to the mask mandate for pupils in classrooms from February 21st. However, masks will still have to be worn by teachers in classrooms and by pupils when moving around schools.