Austria and Slovenia impose tight border restrictions with Italy over coronavirus

Austria and Slovenia announced Tuesday they would severely restrict travel from neighbouring Italy, the country worst hit by the new coronavirus after China.

Austria and Slovenia impose tight border restrictions with Italy over coronavirus
An empty platform at the railway station in Gries am Brenner at the Austrian-Italian border is pictured on February 23, 2020. AFP

Austria — which is also banning big gatherings — ordered a halt to flights and trains from Italy, while Slovenia said it would close its 232-kilometre (144-miles)-long border with the country.

“Nobody there (in Italy) should be travelling abroad, but since nobody is obeying that order, we decided to take measures,” Slovenia's outgoing prime minister Marjan Sarec told reporters. 

“It is not a hermetic closure… It is a necessary move if we want to contain the virus from spreading out of control,” he added.

Sarec said border controls would be put in place “as soon as possible”. Cargo transport will not be affected.

Also exempted from Austria's travel ban are cargo transport, people with a doctor's certificate, and returning Austrians who agree to a two-week quarantine, the Austrian government announced.

“The priority is to stop the spread of the virus,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told reporters earlier Tuesday.

Some train services between Italy and Austria were still running Tuesday but that was expected to change, a spokeswoman for Austrian rail operator OeBB told AFP.

By extension, train services from Venice in Italy to Munich in Germany via the Brenner pass border crossing with Austria will also be stopped, said a spokesperson for German rail operator Deutsche Bahn.

Amid other measures, Austria is also banning outdoor events with more than 500 people and indoor events with more than 100 people until the beginning of April.

In line with the ban, Vienna's state opera is cancelling all its concerts until March 31 in a “very painful” move, director Dominique Meyer said, adding the opera would need state aid for their lost revenue.

Universities and other higher education institutions have been ordered to halt classes from late Monday.

So far the Alpine EU country of more than eight million people has reported 182 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus and no deaths.

Slovenia has reported 32 coronavirus cases so far among its population of two million and no deaths.

The coronavirus outbreak has killed 631 people in Italy and forced the government to restrict movement for its 60 million citizens.

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Italy’s deputy health minister under fire for questioning Covid vaccines

Opposition leaders called for health undersecretary Marcello Gemmato to resign on Tuesday after the official said he was not "for or against" vaccines.

Italy's deputy health minister under fire for questioning Covid vaccines

Gemmato, a trained pharmacist and member of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party, made the remark during an appearance on the political talkshow ReStart on Rai 2 on Monday evening.

READ ALSO: Covid vaccines halved Italy’s death toll, study finds

In a widely-shared clip, the official criticises the previous government’s approach to the Covid pandemic, claiming that for a large part of the crisis Italy had the highest death rate and third highest ‘lethality’ rate (the proportion of Covid patients who died of the disease).

When journalist Aldo Cazzullo interjects to ask whether the toll would have been higher without vaccines, Gemmato responds: “that’s what you say,” and claimed: “We do not have the reverse burden of proof.”

The undersecretary goes on to say that he won’t “fall into the trap of taking a side for or against vaccines”.

After Gemmato’s comments, the president of Italy’s National Federation of Medical Guilds, Filippo Anelli, stressed that official figures showed the Italian vaccination campaign had already prevented some 150,000 deaths, slashing the country’s potential death toll by almost half.

Vaccines also prevented eight million cases of Covid-19, over 500,000 hospitalisations, and more than 55,000 admissions to intensive care, according to a report from Italy’s national health institute (ISS) in April 2021.

Gemmato’s comments provoked calls for him to step down, including from the head of the centre-left Democratic Party, Enrico Letta.

“A health undersecretary who doesn’t take his distance from no-vaxxers is certainly in the wrong job” wrote the leader of the centrist party Action, Carlo Calenda, on Twitter.

Infectious disease expert Matteo Bassetti of Genoa’s San Martino clinic also expressed shock.

“How is it possible to say that there is no scientific proof that vaccines have helped save the lives of millions of people? You just have to read the scientific literature,” Bassetti tweeted. 

In response to the backlash, Gemmato on Tuesday put out a statement saying he believes “vaccines are precious weapons against Covid” and claiming that his words were taken out of context and misused against him.

The Brothers of Italy party was harshly critical of the previous government’s approach to handling the Covid crisis, accusing the former government of using the pandemic as an excuse to “limit freedom” through its use of the ‘green pass’, a proof of vaccination required to access public spaces. 

But since coming into power, Meloni appears to have significantly softened her stance.

Her appointee for health minister, Orazio Schillaci, is a medical doctor who formed part of the team advising the Draghi administration on its handling of the pandemic.

Schillaci, a former dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery at Rome’s Tor Vergata University, has described the former government’s green pass scheme as an “indispensable tool for guaranteeing safety in university classrooms”.

Speaking at a session of the G20 on Tuesday, Meloni referenced the role of vaccines in bringing an end to the Covid pandemic.

“Thanks to the extraordinary work of health personnel, vaccines, prevention, and the accountability of citizens, life has gradually returned to normal,’ the prime minister said in a speech.