Austria suspects outbreak of new UK COVID-19 strain at ski resort

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By Matthew Holroyd
Austria has reopened its ski resorts, despite a national lockdown.
Austria has reopened its ski resorts, despite a national lockdown.   -  Copyright  AP Photo/Matthias Schrader

Austria has identified a new cluster of COVID-19 cases in Jochberg, suspected of being the new coronavirus variant from the UK.

Most of the new cases in the alpine province of Tyrol are British citizens on a ski instructor training course, authorities have said.

All on the course had arrived in Tyrol by 18 December "by land and air" before Austria banned visitors from the United Kingdom, the authorities added.

"There is a concrete suspicion of the British virus strain in the 17 tests," Tirol authorities said in a statement, with final test results expected within a week.

The first coronavirus symptoms were identified on 3 January, and no one in the group has taken part in contact ski lessons. All 17 people are also accommodated in the same place.

Austria imposed a travel ban on flights from the United Kingdom on December 22 after British scientists had detected a new strain of the coronavirus, B117, which is said to be more contagious.

Four cases of the new variant have so far been found in Austria, as well as one case of another variant that originated in South Africa.

"Even if it is currently still an initial suspicion ... we still want to play it safe and not waste any time," said the regional Health Councilor, Bernhard Tilg.

Citizens in Jochberg, in the Kitzbühel district, are being called on to be immediately tested for the coronavirus following the discovery of the cluster.

"In the fight against the spread of this highly contagious virus, we can only act together, and with all necessary speed," added Rudolf Anschober, Federal Minister of Health and Social Affairs.

But many citizens have expressed anger on social media that a ski instructor training course was allowed to take place during a third national lockdown, which was imposed on December 26.

"For months we have been closing schools, reducing contacts to a minimum, depriving young people of their social space. And for what? So ski instructors from the UK to go skiing in Tyrol and spread the viral mutation," tweeted Paul Stich, Chairman of the Socialist Youth Austria.

"This is what happens when the cable car lobby rules and not common sense," added the opposition Social Democratic Party.

Austria has extended its COVID-19 restrictions until January 24, after the government abandoned plans to allow shops, restaurants, and other facilities open to citizens who could prove they had tested negative for the coronavirus.

But the country also reopened its slopes on Christmas Eve, although hotels remain closed to tourists and can only be used for business travel. Neighboring countries Germany and Italy had demanded that ski resorts be shut across Europe during the winter holiday season.