Austria closes again – and probably hopes for mass tests

Wien (dpa) – Austria has to go into the second corona lockdown for three weeks. To curb the high numbers of infections that are pushing the intensive care units to their limits, most shops will close on Tuesday and schools will switch to distance learning.

As was already the case at the beginning of the pandemic in spring, leaving the house or apartment is only permitted for certain reasons, including basic needs, work and, specifically, outdoor recreation – but at most with individual “closest” friends or relatives.

«My urgent request for the next few weeks is: don’t meet anyone! Every social contact is one too many, ”said Chancellor Sebastian Kurz at the announcement on Saturday.

Afterwards, mass tests “in certain groups, for example among teachers” based on the model of the millions of tests in Slovakia will track down undetected infections, Kurz also announced on Sunday in an ORF television interview. The aim is to make Christmas as safe as possible.

“Even if nobody wants a second lockdown, the second lockdown is the only means that we can be sure that it will work,” said Kurz. “The more people stick to what is given here, the shorter this state of affairs will last.”

The measures apply from Tuesday and should end on St. Nicholas Day on December 6th. Shops for daily needs, such as supermarkets, drug stores, pharmacies and banks, remain open. Schools and kindergartens offer care. If possible, employees should work from home. The exit restrictions have to be re-approved every ten days by Parliament’s main committee – a legal regulation introduced after the first lockdown in the spring.

At that time, in the midst of the escalating situation with the still new pandemic, the government had closed schools and trade, culture and even parks. From March 16 to the end of April it was forbidden to enter the public space – except for one of four reasons. Going for a walk was not clearly regulated at the time. The Constitutional Court later overturned parts of the regulation because of imprecise wording. A significant containment of the epidemic became visible in April, for months there were only a few dozen new corona infections per day. However, the numbers have been rising steadily again since July.

The opposition from social democrats to right-wing populists accused the conservative-green government of complete failure and loss of control in the pandemic. The government neglected contact tracking and left the federal states and hospitals alone in preparing the intensive care units.

A month ago, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober (Greens) publicly practically ruled out a lockdown. “I can not imagine that at all,” he told ORF on October 11th. That is only possible before a comprehensive collapse of the health system. “Thank God we are miles away from that,” he said at the time.

Less than two weeks later, the number of infections shot up – from almost 1,000 positive tests in mid-October to more than 8,000 in mid-November. Closed on November 3rd Austria Tourism and gastronomy, cultural establishments and leisure facilities. Exit restrictions from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. should act as a de facto ban on visits to prevent infections at private meetings.

However, the number of infections initially continued to rise in the first half of November. According to Kurz, authorities are now unable to trace 77 percent of new infections. On Friday, the number of new infections per 100,000 inhabitants within 7 days was 554.2, in individual regions even up to 850. The daily numbers of infections only indicated a possible slight relaxation on the weekend compared to the previous week.

Health Minister Rudolf Anschober (Greens) said that every person infected with corona is currently statistically infecting 1.2 other people. This reproductive number must fall below 0.9 – then 10 sick people would theoretically infect a maximum of 9 people. The health system is reaching its limits in many areas. “We therefore need an emergency stop and really immediately,” said Anschober. The braking distance – up to a real lowering of the numbers – is two weeks.

A warning from the country’s top intensive care doctor made it clear that the hospitals are looking into the abyss. “If the whole thing should increase at this rate in the next few days, we will get into the situation of a triage,” said the President of the Society for Anesthesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care Medicine, Klaus Markstaller. Doctors would then have to choose which patients can be treated in intensive care.

Closing schools remains a major point of contention. The opposition parties are firmly against it, and the Federal Government’s Corona Expert Commission had largely spoken out against it a few days before the lockdown. The Greens emphasize that schools are not closed – care is offered, only lessons take place remotely. This poses a dilemma for parents, because according to the current status there is no statutory compensation for companies whose employees would have to stay at home to look after the children – recommended by the Ministry of Education.

The extent to which children contribute to the infection process remains controversial. “Open schools were our goal because we are convinced of the value of education and the social function of schools,” said Education Minister Heinz Faßmann (ÖVP) on Saturday. But the situation is precarious and health is a priority. “Schools are not the drivers of infections, but they are not infection-free either.” Schools and teachers are better prepared for the closings than in spring.

© dpa-infocom, dpa: 201115-99-339590 / 4

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