Rising numbers of infections – Austria is closing down

Sebastian Kurz

Austria’s Chancellor is reacting to the increasing number of new infections in his country.

(Photo: AFP)

Wien The worst fears of the economy and probably of most parents of school-age children have come true in Austria: A “hard” lockdown will apply in the country from next Tuesday. Almost all shops will have to close and compulsory schools will switch to distance learning. Only shops will remain open retailers, banks and pharmacies, which provide services for everyday needs, These measures apply until December 6th.

Austria had already been in a partial lockdown since November 3rd. Shops were still allowed to go about their business, but museums, theaters, cinemas and restaurants were closed. Since the government forbade these companies from doing business, it was relatively generous financially.

It wants to compensate them for up to 80 percent of the lost sales. The basis for comparison is the sales from November 2019. “Body-hugging service providers” such as hairdressers or beauticians are now compensated to the same extent.

According to Finance Minister Gernot Blümel, a differentiated solution is planned for the retail sector. Depending on the division, the stores receive a turnover compensation of 20, 40 or 60 percent. Suppliers of perishable goods are entitled to a 60 percent replacement. This includes, for example, the flower trade.

It is still unclear how the fixed cost grant II developed by Blümel will continue. Companies can apply for it to settle gas, rent, and electricity bills.

However, the EU Commission has not yet approved this aid measure. She sees this as an aid. The companies can therefore apply for grants of a maximum of 800,000 euros from November 23rd.

An average of 7,000 new infections per day

The Austrian government has taken additional drastic measures because the “soft” lockdown has not yet had the desired effect. The number of new infections reported has risen sharply since October 23.

On average over the past seven days there have been 7,000 reported new infections in Austria. Austria is currently considered one of the hardest hit countries in Europe by the pandemic. According to Minister of Health Rudolf Anschober, it is high time to act to prevent the collapse of the health system.

He attributes the sharp increase in the number of cases to the fact that the Austrians were still on the road too often despite partial lockdown, for example to meet friends. The inns were closed, but people visited take-aways in the shopping centers, for example.

“Don’t meet anyone”

On Saturday, people crowded into Mariahilfer Strasse, the capital’s centrally located shopping street. Sometimes the stores tried to attract buyers with discounts. This led to queues in certain places.

“Don’t meet anyone,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz appealed to his compatriots on Saturday. In the next three weeks, the residents of Austria should only be outside in exceptional cases, for example to do sports, go shopping or visit a doctor.

“I know that these measures are extremely drastic,” said Kurz. But they were necessary to drastically reduce the number of infections. The target value for new infections within seven days is less than a tenth of the current value, Kurz emphasized. Authorities could meanwhile 77 percent of the new infections do not trace back.

Health Minister Rudolf Anschober (Greens) said that, statistically speaking, every person infected with corona is currently infecting 1.2 other people. This so-called reproduction number must be reduced to 0.9 – then 10 sick people would theoretically infect 9 people.

Anschober warned that the health system was reaching its limits in many areas. “So we need an emergency stop and really immediately,” he said. The braking distance – the time until a sustainable reduction in the numbers – is two weeks.

The hospitals are already facing the limit, as the country’s top intensive care doctor warned again on Saturday. “If the whole thing should increase at this rate in the next few days, we will face a triage situation,” said the President of the Austrian Society for Anesthesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care Medicine, Klaus Markstaller. Doctors would then have to choose which patients can be treated in intensive care.

Opposition accuses government of “losing control”

But how could the situation develop in such a negative way again? Were there any failures? There was some heated argument about this on Saturday. The government had repeatedly emphasized that it wanted to prevent a lockdown by all possible means. Health Minister Anschober had practically ruled out such strict measures almost exactly a month ago. “I can’t 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’re miles away from that,” he said at the time.

The opposition parties have now accused the government of losing control. “Now all Austrians are being presented with the bill for the management failure of the federal government,” said the head of the Social Democrats, Pamela Rendi-Wagner. The government neglected contact tracking and left the federal states and hospitals alone in preparing the intensive care units.

Closing schools remained a major point of contention. According to the media, the Corona expert commission spoke out against it on Thursday. The Federal Chancellery was a supporter of the measures. The schools should remain open, stressed Rendi-Wagner. The chairman of the liberal Neos, Beate Meinl-Reisinger, announced that she would examine legal steps because of the school closings.

“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. “The schools are not drivers of the infections, but they are not free from infections either.” Schools and teachers are better prepared for the closings than in the spring.

More: The current developments on the coronavirus in our news blog

With agency material

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