Lockdown measures: What will Austria decide on Monday?

The Austrian government is set to make a decision on Monday about whether to relax, or even tighten, the coronavirus lockdown measures.

Lockdown measures: What will Austria decide on Monday?
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ALEX HALADA / AFP)

An “opening summit” took place on Thursday, in which Chamber of Commerce boss Harald Mahrer said the government should look at facts and data.

He believed this would show that opening up the catering and hotel industries would be possible in mid March by using testing, distance and mask requirements and vaccinations.

The federal government previously said cultural venues, cafes and restaurants would only open around Easter “at the earliest”.

Then, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz began to entertain the possibility of opening up restaurants with a testing strategy similar to that used by schools and hairdressers at the last easing of lockdown measures.

The federal government will meet on Monday to decide if and when lockdown measures should be relaxed. 

‘Very high risk’

However, this was quickly followed by a meeting of the government’s Corona Commission, which said Austria was currently at “very high risk”.

The infection rate is increasing and a rapidly increasing proportion of the infections are due to the British variant of the coronavirus. 

The commission not only warned against relaxing the existing measures but also spoke of going back into full lockdown if Austria once again found itself with a nationwide incidence rate of over 200 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. 

Schools closure ‘last resort’

Two weeks ago, Austria’s incidence rate was 106, as of Friday, it is 149. However, the commission says schools should only close as a “last resort”.

ORF reports Vienna and Upper Austria will begin vaccinating teachers and kindergarten staff next week.

At present, the hospital figures do not look too alarming, with 13 percent of the intensive care beds occupied by Covid patients on Wednesday.

However, there is normally a lag between increasing incidences and increases in intensive care units, and the commission recommends that the federal states take measures to prepare for this. 

Are more cases due to more testing?

The commission believes only 10 to 15 percent of the increase in incidence cases can be traced back to increased testing. 

The British mutation of the virus is of particular concern to the Corona Commission. It is believed this variant is already responsible for more than half the infections across Austria.

The reproduction rate of the variant is 27 percent higher than previous versions of the virus, which pushes up the R number (the amount of people infected by each infected person) to 1.22.

The aim of experts and politicians is to keep the number of reproductions below one.

Who is catching coronavirus?

In the past three weeks there has been a disproportionate increase in the number of cases of coronavirus in those aged under 25 in comparison to the other age groups, connected to the introduction of testing in schools and educational establishments. 

Only minor increases were recorded in the over 65 age groups. There has also been a decline in coronavirus clusters in care and nursing homes as well as in the health sector due to vaccinations and other measures.

Two weeks needed to show results

Nikolas Popper from the Vienna University of Technology has told Der Standard after two weeks of increased testing in Austria it will be possible to show if testing is working in keeping the numbers of coronavirus infections in check.

He told the newspaper if there is no fall or stabilisation in the number of infections very quickly, it will show there is a problem in the screening process. 

The point of the tests is that infected people and their direct contacts are isolated and prevented from infecting others.

This should mean that the number of infections will automatically decrease. If this is not happening, the screening through the tests has too little effect.

Then it will be necessary to see if the tests are too imprecise or if quarantine is being enforced rigorously enough. 

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Is Austria failing to provide care for special needs children in schools?

Teacher's unions have warned the Austrian federal government of the extreme labour shortage and special needs education sector budget caps.

Is Austria failing to provide care for special needs children in schools?

Union leader Paul Kimberger has highlighted the urgent need for support in special education within schools, emphasising the need for increased resources tailored to current conditions rather than being restricted by outdated regulations. 

In an interview with the Austrian newspaper Der Standard, Kimberger stated, “The schools urgently need help in the area of special educational support”. He demanded “an increase in special education resources adapted to real needs and not limited by a scurrilous legal cap that has nothing to do with reality.”

READ ALSO: Four things foreigners in Austria need to know about the education system

Why is there a budget issue?

The union leader explained that the school budget regulation is outdated.

Currently, the allocation of resources for children with special educational needs is based on a figure that is 31 years old. According to the 1992 “financial equalisation scheme” in Austria, additional resources are provided by the federal government for a maximum of 2.7 per cent of schoolchildren requiring special support due to physical or mental disabilities.

However, Statistics Austria reveals that in the school year 2021/22, 5.1 per cent of the 582,969 children enrolled in compulsory schools were students with special educational needs. 

According to the Der Standard report, the significant variation in distribution among federal states is also noteworthy and still unexplained.

READ ALSO: Fact check: Does the far-right in Austria really want to ban sweatpants in schools?

While Tyrol has only 2.8 per cent of special needs students, neighbouring Salzburg has 6.9 per cent, more than double the national average. Vienna and Upper Austria have 5.8 per cent of compulsory school children requiring special education. Burgenland (3.6 per cent) and Styria (4 per cent) have a much lower prevalence of such students. At the same time, Lower Austria (5.3 per cent) and Vorarlberg (5.5 per cent) also exceed the national average.

Because of the budget cap, children who need trained teachers have not received the proper care, Kimberger stated. “So we are missing almost 3,000 service positions to be able to teach and care for these children adequately”, he explained.

Considering the average annual cost of a teacher (€50,000), this would result in additional financial requirements in the hundreds of millions. 

READ ALSO: ‘Explore all options’: How can parents in Austria choose the right school?

The union representative criticised the withholding of investments from the education system for decades, specifically affecting the most vulnerable individuals in society, due to the bureaucratic negotiations on the “financial equalisation scheme” by the Minister of Finance and provincial governors.

What does the ministry say?

Minister of Education Martin Polaschek (ÖVP) declined to comment on the teachers’ union’s demands, Der Standard reported. Instead, the ministry said it awaits the results of a study commissioned by the  ÖVP and the Greens coalition on the allocation practice for special educational needs. 

The research consortium, consisting of 17 researchers from 13 Austrian universities and colleges of education and the Institute for Advanced Studies (IHS), is expected to present the findings in the second half of the year.