Austria was in lockdown for six weeks, schools and shops in the country have been open again since Monday morning. Behind the scenes, however, those involved argue. Above all about dealing with the state of Tyrol, which borders on Germany.
Experts are warning of the uncontrolled spread of the variant of the corona virus discovered in South Africa. A partitioning of the region was under discussion, in the end the Austrian government decided to issue a travel warning in its own country: Vienna advises against unnecessary trips to Tyrol and calls on those returning from the state to be tested urgently.
Appointments only after a negative Corona test: A hairdresser in Graz coordinating appointments
The easing in trade and schools apply to all of Austria. The weekly incidence of more than 100 infections per 100,000 inhabitants is well above the value that is currently specified for Germany and is likely to lead to an extension of the lockdown.
So far, Austria had repeatedly oriented itself towards the measures of its large neighboring country in the corona crisis, but now the country with nine million inhabitants is taking a different direction.
The population is tired of lockdown, said Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in an interview with the newspaper “Welt am Sonntag”: “In the last two weeks, our infection rates have not decreased because fewer and fewer people have followed the rules and are back again longing for more freedom. “
Reaction to the easing: tightened border controls between Germany and Austria
However, the new freedoms for citizens do not exist entirely without consideration. The country is establishing a strict testing and contact tracing regime in many areas. No more hairdressing appointments without a current corona test and stricter regulations also apply to entry from Wednesday.
Accordingly, from February 10th, commuters and school commuters will also have to register and be tested electronically. For all other visitors, even stricter rules apply: If you wanted to quickly cross the border from Bavaria to refuel, you would first have to be in quarantine even with a negative test.
Pressure from parents
The stricter controls at the border are part of the price of the easing for the own population. The pressure on the government had built up from several sides: Above all, the tourism-dependent economy sounded the alarm.
But not only the companies demanded a change of course. In the country’s schools, too, great resentment has built up, unionist Paul Kimberger told DW.
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“The pressure from parents was enormous,” stated Austria’s top teachers’ union for compulsory schools. In his opinion, the alternative to face-to-face teaching has reached its limits.
“What we have learned in recent weeks and months is that distance learning cannot replace face-to-face teaching. It is not so much about imparting knowledge as it is about the question of the school as a social structure.”
The responsible education minister sees it similarly: “It is very important that children and young people meet their friends again,” said Heinz Faßmann from the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). “And that the children get a binding time structure again.”
Mass tests should bring security
The timing of the opening, trade unions and politicians agree, is delicate in view of the accelerated spread of the mutations. In order to keep the situation under control, the government is relying on the massive expansion of tests, divided classes and a changeover model for the older age groups.
From now on, all students have to test themselves for the coronavirus with the antigen test, affectionately known in Austria as the “nose bur test”, before class. Only those who can show a negative Corona rapid test are allowed to take part in classroom lessons. If you don’t want to take the test that is necessary every few days, you have to learn from home.
Primary schools are open to everyone, but the older age groups have to take alternating classes
Unlike the test used by professional medical personnel, which takes the sample from the back of the throat, in the “nose bur test” the cotton swab is only inserted a few centimeters into the nose.
This is much more pleasant for the children, but also less reliable when tracking down infected people. The authorities reported 32 positive test results after the first day of school for the capital Vienna alone.
“The logistical effort for the measure is enormous,” explains trade unionist Kimberger. “We need 1.8 million antigen self-tests for the pupils. We need enormous logistics for the test stations of the more than 126,000 teachers in Austria. They are also tested regularly.”
Next lockdown in three weeks?
The government’s requirements for schools are based, among other things, on a study carried out by researchers from Austria in January. The physicist Jana Lasser from the Medical University of Vienna and the “Complexity Science Hub Vienna” is one of its authors.
She believes that schools can be opened under strict security precautions. “In the model calculation, we see that among the measures that are now being taken in our schools in Austria, there are on average no to a maximum of three to four subsequent cases when the virus enters the school”, Lasser told DW.
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The risk of spreading varies according to the type of school and is likely to be lowest in primary schools. Their mostly very manageable size, the smaller class size in Austria with a good 20 children and the largely renouncement of subject teachers who change classes several times a day benefit this type of school, says Lasser
It will soon become clear whether the mass tests actually increase safety in schools. He has often heard gloomy forecasts recently, reports unionist Kimberger: “Some experts say that this school opening will be over in three weeks and that we will have to close again.”