Austria will reintroduce a mandate for indoor masks, health minister Johannes Rauch announced Friday, countering a trend in European countries to lift precautions against the coronavirus, despite the increasing number of cases.
“It was just necessary to take countermeasures now,” Mr Rauch said at a news conference on Friday, just weeks after Austria lifted its mask mandates in most interior spaces.
Earlier this month, Austrian officials had announced that the country’s general vaccine mandate would be temporarily suspended. It recently became official, but enforcement has not yet started. About 74 percent of Austrians are fully vaccinated, according to the Our World in Data.
But Mr Rauch said experts have now corrected predictions for the trajectory of the virus and officials were concerned about staffing and availability of beds in hospitals and retirement and nursing homes.
From Wednesday, FFP2 masks (the European equivalent of US N95s) will be mandatory again in indoor spaces, and the government would soon revise isolation rules for infected people, the Ministry of Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection said in a statement on Friday.
A highly portable Omicron sub-variant, BA.2, is contributing to the new wave around Europe this month. While deaths in the region have continued to fall, the number of Covid patients in hospitals has risen in some European countries, such as the United Kingdom, Ireland and Austria, according to Our World in Data.
According to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, the number of new cases in Austria has increased by 54 percent in the past two weeks.
But European countries have nevertheless pushed for reopening. Last month, Denmark dropped all of its restrictions, including a mask mandate in indoor areas and on public transport. The UK government has ended all remaining legal coronavirus restrictions in England, including the legal requirement for infected people to self-isolate. On Thursday, Italy announced that it would be phasing out its vaccination and health pass requirements.
But as countries greeted the end of many precautions, Austria’s announcement sent a worrying signal that momentum in that direction may have been premature. Mr Rauch said previous policy changes were based on predictions that the number of cases would now decrease.
“That didn’t work out. It has changed, and has changed considerably,” he said.
Christopher F. Schuetze reporting contributed.