As lockdowns across Europe extend into the spring, the Austrian government says it has a strategy to get life back to normal in weeks rather than months – not with vaccines, but testing.
The country of 8.8 million inhabitants will make 3.5 million Covid tests available to its citizens every week as of Monday. The plan could allow restaurants and bars to start welcoming customers by mid-March. Non-essential shops and schools are already open and many Austrians have returned to their workplaces.
“We are well on our way to becoming the world champion in testing,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said. “Our goal is to be able to control the incidence of infection, or at least mitigate any growth in the number of infections, as best we can, by testing as much as possible.”
As Covid cases rise, Austria has become frustrated with the EU slow vaccine deployment. The bloc’s performance is particularly worrying because last May – out of respect for EU solidarity – Kurz turned down an interim offer by Benjamin Netanyahu to partner with Israel in his vaccination campaign with Pfizer, two Austrian officials said. at the Financial Times.
Kurz has a close working relationship with the Israeli leader, and the two regularly discuss the pandemic.
The missed opportunity for the kind of rapid vaccination program launched by Israel underscored the importance for small countries such as Austria to be flexible in their approach to the virus, a political adviser close to the Chancellor said.
Austria’s confidence in testing has put it at odds with other European countries where the Covid policy is almost exclusively immunization focused as a way to escape another wave of the pandemic.
This has left much of the continent languishing under stricter lockdown conditions than those enforced when the pandemic first struck a year ago.
Great Britain is European leader in vaccines, with more than 28 doses of vaccine administered per 100 residents. Austria only scored 6, slightly below the EU average of 6.3. But last week the UK government said it still expects to impose four more months of restrictions to control the virus.
Critics say Vienna is walking a tightrope: cases in Austria have gone from a low of 14.9 per 100,000 inhabitants a fortnight ago to a moving average of 19.2 over seven days. The next two weeks will be crucial: if the numbers continue to rise, Austria’s strategy will collapse.
But the focus on testing will also be closely watched. Chancellor Angela Merkel told lawmakers in her party last week that she believed mass testing would be essential in helping Germany return to normal.
Thomas Czypionka, head of health policy at the Vienna Institute of Advanced Studies, said a “tight test network” would provide the opportunity to reopen businesses and schools by controlling transmission of the virus. “It’s a different kind of strategy. It’s not perfect, but it’s worth a try.
Austria’s initiative must partly be understood in the context of the government’s mismanagement of the second wave, according to Czypionka.
Celebrated for his agility crisis management last spring, Kurz has since faced criticism as the number of cases skyrocketed. In November, Austria recorded the highest number of new infections per million population in Western Europe.
Testing is crucial, Czypionka said, as people’s will to tolerate the restrictions and their dire economic consequences has reached its limit. “People have lost their faith. This is the real reason the government needs to open up.
He was nonetheless convinced that the testing strategy was good: “It’s cheaper than keeping a country in lockdown.”
While the first mass testing experiment in Austria began in December, with limited success, the latest campaign is markedly different. The tests will be linked to the gradual emergence of the lockdown itself – using reliable PCR tests for entry to sites, and rapid-result lateral flow tests for home use. Chancellery officials said they believe this ‘push’ approach – where even small incentives can prove to be powerful motivators for social change – has been a big success.
Hairdressing salons have been open in Austria since February 8. But their use is subject to testing: customers must present proof of a negative test no later than 48 hours before an appointment.
The idea is now being debated for the hospitality industry. An announcement is expected to be made this week, but the government is hoping entry tests at restaurants, bars and cafes could reopen some – with strict hygiene measures also in place – as early as March 14.
“My heart is bleeding because tens of thousands of businesses have not been allowed to open for months. We will do our utmost to ensure that the restaurant and hospitality industry can once again welcome guests. I am on the side of industry, ”Tourism Minister Elisabeth Köstinger said last week.
The testing capacity has been significantly increased. There are now 800 pharmacies across Austria offering testing and 650 other specialist testing stations. From Monday, the government hopes to make up to five postal tests – which can be ordered through a telephone hotline or online – accessible to every Austrian each week.
Schools test students twice a week and workplaces have been integrated. The government is subsidizing more than 1,000 Austrian companies – representing just under 500,000 employees – to provide them with regular free testing for those who wish to return to the workplace.
Testing was the best way to avoid an “indefinite lockdown,” Kurz said last week, promising the Austrians that the government would do everything it could to safely reopen public life.