Austria close to standstill, starts biggest repatriation effort ever

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria came close to a standstill on Tuesday as it faced a second day of major restrictions on public life due to coronavirus, with Vienna Airport operating at a bare minimum, rail transport down 70% and a western region put under lockdown.

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The Alpine republic, which has reported 1,332 coronavirus cases and three deaths from the global pandemic, put severe restrictions on movement on Monday in response to the developments in Italy and a strong increase in coronavirus cases in some of its regions.

Gatherings of more than five people are banned, Austrians are being urged to self-isolate and schools and shops selling non-essential goods have closed.

Health minister Rudolf Anschober said he was optimistic to be able to reduce the increase in new coronavirus cases within the next days, thanks to the strict measures.

“There are already reductions on some days but this is not a general trend yet,” Anschober said.

There was no shortage in testing equipment, he said with a view on difficulties in other countries.

Austria's foreign minister said he was working on bringing back 47,000 travellers, who have been stranded all around the globe. He was in close cooperation with other European states and Austrian Airlines LHAG.DE, Alexander Schallenberg said, asking for patience as increasing travel restrictions made the undertaking extremely difficult.

“This is Austria’s biggest repatriation effort ever,” the minister said.

Vienna Airport expects scheduled flights to completely stop in the coming days due to the coronavirus-related restrictions with only planes carrying freight or bringing people back home to continue to operate.

Austria has closed its borders to most arrivals from neighbouring Italy and Switzerland. People travelling from Britain, the Netherlands, Russia and Ukraine can gain entry only under certain conditions.

There are still no restrictions in place along the border with Germany, although the northern neighbour introduced its own border controls this week.

Rail transport has declined by 70% in recent days and passenger road traffic has declined to a necessary minimum, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said.

He thanked Austrians for the patience and called for “Team Austria” to stick together.

The Arlberg region in the province of Vorarlberg near the Swiss border was on Tuesday put under quarantine until April 3.

It joined the popular Tyrolean ski resorts of Ischgl and St. Anton and Carinthia’s Heiligenblut, which had already been put under lockdown in recent days and are seen as Austrian hotspots for the spread of the disease.

Reporting by Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Michelle Martin and Alexandra Hudson