Corona measures – simulation expert Popper: “It is extremely important to decide quickly”

The whole of Austria is in lockdown again – recorded on Monday, November 22nd, in Vienna. (picture alliance / HANS PUNZ)

Within just one week, Austria has significantly tightened its corona measures: from a lockdown for unvaccinated people to a general lockdown for everyone. Unfortunately, people in the Alpine republic have not always been that decisive, explained Nikolas Popper, simulation expert at the Vienna University of Technology, on Deutschlandfunk.

“We saw very closely in the models: If we stick to this vaccination coverage, we’ll have a problem in November – it didn’t lead to any reaction.”

According to Popper, there is now one thing that really matters: speed. “It is extremely important to decide quickly, preferably a less than optimal decision, but quickly, and also to make as few decisions as possible.”

Enforceability of mandatory vaccination as a possible problem

Some of the preventive measures were “not really consistently implemented nationwide in Austria,” said Popper. In addition, some emergency networks – such as PCR testing – did not work due to a lack of infrastructure in some regions.

Austria would like – as the first country in the EU to date – to introduce compulsory corona vaccination from February. Popper thinks this step is problematic. “From my experience I know that duty is very difficult to implement in preventive measures, because the question is, how do you really want to execute it?”

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The interview in full length:

Ralf Krauter: A week ago today, a lockdown for unvaccinated people came into force in Austria. The 7-day incidence at that time was around 800 per 100,000 inhabitants. What spoke in favor of this measure from the point of view of the corona modeler?

Nikolas Popper: Well, you have already mentioned that we are in a very different region in Austria. So we have regions that already had an incidence at this point in time that was over 2,000 per 100,000 inhabitants, which means that two percent of people got sick in one week. In any case, that spoke in favor of the fact – also together with the heavily used intensive care bed capacities – that you have to do something. The question that politicians then asked itself is: what should we do? The result was a lockdown.

Krauter: First of all, the lockdown for unvaccinated people – can you say today with a week’s gap whether these measures have brought anything, is that reflected in the current infection numbers, the 7-day incidence in Austria?

Popper: No, it can’t do that either. We are currently assuming that we already have anticipatory effects, that is, that people have already reduced their contact behavior in the last week, the discussion was extremely loud in the media and on everyone’s lips. Conversely, however, at the weekend, as you can see here in the city, many people, so to speak, took advantage of the last weekend. We’ll take a look at mobility by the middle of the week, which should have already decreased. And then we’ll see if we can already see that in the positive tests. The biggest problem is: Where intensive care beds are at the limit of capacity, so we would certainly not have seen for twelve days to two weeks, that will be the exciting thing, because the question will soon arise, how long does the lockdown have to be be maintained. Because you always have to see that, this is not a model for maintaining a low incidence, it is enough, so to speak, to moderate what is happening. A lockdown with the enormous costs only makes sense if you bring down the numbers really quickly and effectively – and that has to be the goal now.

Popper: Measures now have to take effect quickly

Krauter: How did it come about that the government tightened its measures so significantly within a week, from lockdown for unvaccinated people now to lockdown for about three weeks.

Popper: Well, I’m not an expert now, but in principle, I believe, the lockdown for unvaccinated people was precisely the claim of certain political forces who said, you dear vaccinated people, we won’t bother you anymore. From a scientific point of view, one had to admit and say that we simply cannot say how well a lockdown works for unvaccinated people because the willingness of people to participate is presumably low – especially among this group of people. But we just don’t know. And I think that basically led to the decision that we just didn’t have the time to wait to see if measures only work for the unvaccinated. Now, of course, from a political point of view, one is in a very difficult position because it was not possible to keep these very promises that the vaccinated would be off the hook, so to speak. It is now to be hoped in the interests of the general public that the measures will work quickly, that we will come down quickly, that we will return to normality in the course of December, which, I believe, is what vaccinated and unvaccinated people want equally.

Krauter: The 7-day incidence in Austria had risen to over 1,000 in the meantime, including last week, of the 800 already mentioned – despite the lockdown for unvaccinated people that had already been imposed. In this respect, one can probably understand that the government has sharpened it. But let’s come back to this promise made by Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg. He said that the lockdown for vaccinated people, which began today, should be over by December 13th at the latest and one should return to the 2G rule. Isn’t it risky to promise something like that, how realistic is it that it will really work, that the cow will be off the ice by then?

Popper: Maybe he has smarter models than we have, I don’t know. Promises are always risky in Covid times, we’ve already learned that. On the other hand, to be fair, one also has to say that politicians, I believe, have to give people perspectives. From our experience you can already say that if a lockdown is adhered to, you will see results here quickly. You have to admit that. At the moment there is a big discussion in Austria that schools are still open.

That can make sense because there is basically a very good test and screening system in schools with PCR tests. However, the big criticism from experts here is whether this is actually being implemented. As with many other things, the big question mark is whether we are dealing with problems here, not because the system would not work in principle, but how it is actually implemented in reality. We have to look at that now, we will get new numbers on Wednesday, we will look at that very carefully and also price it into the models.

Preventive measures should be credible

Krauter: The exciting thing is that the debates that are being held in Austria are also being conducted one-to-one in Germany with a few days’ delay. There will also now be regionally similar strategies, Saxony has ordered a breakwater lockdown, in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria there are already lockdowns for unvaccinated people in hotspots, today the state health ministers in Germany are again advising on how to proceed. In the light of the experience in Austria, what would you advise them to do now?

Popper: Well, the question can be answered on two levels. Basically, I think what we can learn is: It is extremely important to decide quickly, preferably a less than optimal decision, but quickly, and also to make as few decisions as possible. I know that this is often difficult in Realpolitik, but at times like this it is extremely important that you decide quickly together in order to create clarity. In addition to their actual effectiveness, preventive measures have a very important second component, which is credibility. And that in turn influences how people implement it, which is why this topic is so important. A second topic that cannot be solved ad hoc, but which is very important in the medium term, at least for Austria – and I assume also for Germany – is: You have to prepare.

It is not as if the current crisis and the lockdown fell from the sky, but on the one hand we fell short of expectations in terms of vaccination coverage. We have seen very closely in the models that if we stick to this vaccination coverage, we will have a problem in November, it has not led to any reaction. We saw that some of the reducing measures that were taken were not really consistently implemented nationwide, then we saw a slight increase. And thirdly, all of the emergency networks that we then switched on, such as stricter G regulations, then did not work because the infrastructure, for example the PCR tests, was not available in some regions. In Vienna, for example, they are strongly developed, which is why the incidences are lower here than elsewhere. There are things, the homework, that you have to do, that is the second important aspect. That doesn’t help now for the current situation, but – and this cannot be said often enough – we will still need these homework from January to April bitterly, bitterly. In this respect, this means now, on the one hand, to look at the current situation, but also to forget about sustainable solutions.

A vaccination requirement is difficult to implement

Krauter: A compulsory vaccination, which should come in Austria from February now, could also have a lasting effect. Would we be well advised in Germany to really seriously discuss it?

Popper: I’m a little bit the wrong person you’re asking, I’m not an expert on the question of whether a mandatory vaccination helps. From my experience I know that duty is very difficult to implement in preventive measures, because the question is, how do you really want to execute it? From the evidence point of view, it has to be said that the obligation is now planned for February 2022. Why? Because there are a lot of difficult legal and organizational things to clarify, from my point of view something has to happen before that. Ideally, we can get a lot of people first vaccinated beforehand, because that’s the big hurdle. The second vaccinations, the booster vaccinations follow anyway, because you already have the people on board. We now have to see that we get over 90 percent first vaccinations – and we should actually be able to do that by the appointment. Ideally, we then no longer need the compulsory vaccination, but that is not a scientific statement, but positive thinking that I can contribute here.

// Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt the statements of its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.

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