Germany closes Austrian and Czech borders as Covid anxieties rise

Unilateral move to stop spread of variants highlights difficulties posed by Schengen

Soldiers of the Austrian armed forces talk with drivers queuing at the Thurn high mountain pass in Jochberg in Austria’s Tyrol region. Photograph: STR/EXPA/AFP via Getty

Soldiers of the Austrian armed forces talk with drivers queuing at the Thurn high mountain pass in Jochberg in Austria’s Tyrol region. Photograph: STR/EXPA/AFP via Getty

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Germany has described as “unavoidable” a decision to close its borders to Austria and the Czech Republic in a bid to keep out more infectious variants of Covid-19.

Federal health minister Jens Spahn said the decision to close borders for an unspecified amount of time – severely restricting pan-European road traffic – was a painful but necessary step.

The unilateral decision, sparking anger among commuters in Czech and Austrian border regions, highlights the difficulty of containing the virus in the open-border Schengen area – and is likely to trigger fresh tensions with the European Commission.

“We have to protect our country from further viruses,” said Mr Spahn on Friday in Berlin. “We only reach for these measures when there are really no others.”

For days German authorities have noted with alarm the rapid spread of Covid mutations in two border areas, and are concerned that neighbouring local authorities are not doing enough to contain infection.

Tensions are particularly high between the southern state of Bavaria and the Austrian state of Tyrol.

An Alpine region popular with tourists, Tyrol is now Europe’s hot spot for the B1351 variant first identified in South Africa, with 438 cases detected.

New rules imposed by the Austrian government on Friday allow Tyrol residents to leave their state only with a negative test no less than two days old. These rules apply to commuters as well as other travellers, and anyone caught breaching the heightened lockdown rules faces a fine of up to €1,450. Excluded are children, those transporting goods and transit travel without stops.

Border controls

Some 1,200 Austrian soldiers have been deployed to Tyrol’s borders, while German border controls – reintroduced in 2015 during the refugee crisis – will be stepped up from Sunday.

After close co-operation in the early days of the pandemic, the last days have seen heightened tensions between Austrian politicians and Bavaria’s minister president, Markus Söder.

“We’re very unsettled by Austria,” said Mr Söder. “In Tyrol, we hear, nobody is concerned ... I’m concerned we’ll have a second Ischgl.”

A year ago the Austrian ski resort achieved global notoriety as a virus superspreader. Now German officials are furious by what they see as renewed lobbying in Vienna by Austria’s influential winter sports lobby, anxious to salvage what’s left of the ski season.

Tyrol’s regional government has hit back at such claims and has described the restrictions as a discriminatory “blow below the belt”.

German disquiet with Austria goes beyond Tyrol, as crowds flooded shopping precincts across the country this week after the Viennese government loosened the country’s lockdown.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has defended his government’s decision to roll back two months of restrictions.

“The safest path would be to persist with the lockdown,” said Mr Kurz. Despite 1,300 new cases daily, he said it was important to consider, too, “the social and psychological aspects” of such a path.

Cabin fever

One regional leader warned that Austrians were facing a serious case of collective “cabin fever” while another close political ally of the chancellor conceded his decision was a “ride on a razor blade”.

It follows a study showing a third of Austrians are exhausted by lockdown restrictions, a third consider them too much and just under a third would like even tighter rules. Perhaps the most politically damaging result of the poll, conducted by the University of Vienna: just one in five Austrians considered the government’s lockdown restrictions effective at controlling the spread of the virus.

On Friday, as Czech health authorities reported another 8,916 cases, the Prague parliament rejected a government move to extend the state of emergency, which ends at midnight on Sunday.

The government’s restrictions affected free travel in three border areas where infections are especially high: Cheb, Sokolov and Trutnov.