Rules are gradually being eased in Austria after three weeks of lockdown

Austria could be the first EU country to start lifting its coronavirus lockdown, but it all depends on people continuing to obey strict social distancing rules.

Countries across Europe have put strict measures in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19, ordering bars, theatres, gyms and non-essential shops to close their doors. People have been told to stay at home as much as possible and to only venture out for absolutely essential purposes.

The lockdown in Austria has curbed the daily increase in infections to single digits in percentage terms and the number of people admitted to hospital with the disease has stabilised. Today the government announced plans to start reopening shops while widening a requirement to wear face masks.

Despite warning last week that the country’s healthcare system could soon be stretched, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the Alpine republic’s decision to take action early is now starting paying off. At a press conference he said: ‘We reacted faster and more restrictively than in other countries and could therefore avoid the worst.

‘But this fast and restrictive reaction now also gives us the possibility to come out of this crisis more quickly.’

But he warned Austria’s plan can be pulled off ‘only if we all continue to stick to the measures and stand together as well as we have until now’.

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Kurz warned citizens not to celebrate Easter with people outside their household and said he wouldn’t be seeing his own parents.

On April 14 non-essential shops of 400 square metres (4,300 square feet) or less are to re-open along with DIY stores.

If all goes well, they all other shops, hairdressers and shopping malls would be allowed to open their doors from May 1, but only one customer per 20 square metres will be allowed inside.

Meanwhile restaurants, hotels and school will stay shut until mid-May at the earliest and no public events will be held until at least June.

Kurz said if trends in infection begin to worsen again, the government ‘always has the possibility to hit the emergency brake’ and re-introduce restrictions.

He pointed to the example of Singapore, which initially had managed to contain the spread of the virus but was now facing a second wave of infections.

Austria currently requires shoppers to wear face masks at supermarkets and drugstores of more than 400 square metres.

Opinion remains split over the use of the equipment. At a Downing Street press conference last week the UK’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam accepted the masks are ‘controversial’.

He said: ‘There is no evidence that general wearing of face masks by the public who are well affects the spread of the disease in our society. What matters is social distancing.’

The World Health Organisation have also said most people do not need to wear them unless they are unwell and coughing.

Some supermarkets in Austria have been running out of masks. Kurz said the Government would check to make sure they are not being sold for profit. A scarf or shawl can also be worn as a substitute.

As the country loosens its restrictions, people will also be required to wear masks on public transport and in re-opened shops.

One item that might have influenced Kurz’s decision is a study of whether a representative sample of 2,000 people had been exposed to the coronavirus. The results are due to be presented by Tuesday.

The conservative Chancellor said: ‘What we can say is that it is in the thousandths of a percent and an infection rate in Austria, to the extent there is one, will be around 1%.

‘Any idea of herd immunity has been clearly disproved at the latest by this spot check.’

An Austrian ski resort with a town of around 1,500 people has been dubbed by the media as a ‘breeding ground’ for European coronavirus cases.

Nicknamed ‘Ibiza of the Alps’ Ischgl is said to have an infection rate double that of Viennam a city with a population of four million.

The party hotspot is thought to be the source of half of Norway’s cases and has been linked to infections in Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Germany and the UK.

Now it is being investigated for negligence after prosecutors alleged authorities at the resort in Tyrol province turned a blind eye to cases because they feared reporting them would damage their tourist industry in the midst of a key local election campaign.

In Austria so far there have been more than 12,000 coronavirus cases, 220 deaths and 3,464 recoveries.

Worldwide, more than 1.25 million people have been infected with coronavirus and 70,000 have died.

Austria’s southern neighbour Italy has suffered the worst fatalities in the world with 15,887 patients losing their lives.

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