An independent commission has found that Austrian national and local authorities made “momentous miscalculations” by first hesitating and then rushing to evacuate an Alpine ski resort that has been described as the “ground zero” of the coronavirus first wave in Europe.
Ischgl, a town of 1,600 inhabitants in the Tirolean Paznaun valley and one of Europe’s premium skiing destinations, has been in the spotlight since the middle of March, after thousands of tourists, including at least 180 Britons, caught the virus there during the spring holidays and carried it back to their home countries.
After interviewing 53 decision-makers about their handling of the outbreak, an expert commission appointed by the Tirolean regional government on Monday for the first time officially identified individual failings that helped speed up the spread of the virus across the continent.
The commission, chaired by the former vice-president of the Austrian supreme court, said in its report that authorities should have shut down après-ski bars, restaurants, ski lifts and non-essential bus services on 9 March.
The previous day, health authorities had been informed that a waiter at one of the town’s après-ski bars had tested positive for Covid-19 and 11 staff members had served tourists for a week while displaying flu-like symptoms.
Yet bars in Ischgl were not ordered to shut down until 10 March, and the skiing season not declared over until 12 March – “a wrong decision, from an epidemiological perspective”, said Roland Rohrer, the commission’s chair.
Rohrer said the Tirol’s health authorities had acted “untruthfully, and therefore badly”, when they announced on 5 March that a group of Icelandic skiers who had tested positive in Reykjavik had probably caught the virus on the plane home and not in Ischgl.
Recent reports in Austrian media allege that Tirolean authorities deliberately tried to take Ischgl “out of the firing line” of media attention, knowing that the tourists from Iceland had in fact travelled back on separate planes.
However, the expert commission said on Monday that they had found no evidence that authorities had been lobbied by the local tourism industry to keep the ski lifts running for as long as possible.
The commission’s report also points the finger at the Austrian chancellor for eventually rushing to evacuate the entire Paznaun valley, leading to tumultuous scenes that will have likely exacerbated the spread of the virus among departing tourists.
On Friday 13 March, the chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, had advised visitors at a press conference to leave the Paznaun valley “speedily” to avoid being quarantined, leading to tourists rushing to their cars in skiing boots or jumping on to overcrowded buses that then became stuck on the gridlocked roads out of the valley.
Some skiers, the commission’s report notes, got stuck in ski lifts following a power cut directly after the press conference and could not return to the bottom of the valley until several hours later.
Even though police later tried to take down details of the departing tourists on their way out of the valley, the Austrian government never passed on the data to relevant health authorities in their destination countries.
Instead of announcing the Paznaun valley’s closure in a “surprising and unprepared” manner, Rohrer said, Kurz’s government could have staggered the evacuation over the space of the weekend and thus minimised the risk of further infections.
The commission failed to answer exactly how and when the virus had found its way to Ischgl. While the strain of Covid-19 found in the Paznaun valley matches the one detected at a French skiing resort visited by a British “superspreader” who had previously been to Singapore, a link could not be confirmed.
The expert commission’s report is one of several investigations into the chronology of the Ischgl cluster.
An Austrian consumer protection group that has collected signatures from more than 6,000 tourists from 47 countries who believe they caught the virus in the Tirol filed four civil lawsuits against the Austrian government’s “calculated export” of the virus in late September.
The state prosecutor in Innsbruck is meanwhile investigating four main suspects for negligence, including Ischgl’s mayor, for “deliberate or negligent endangerment of people through transferrable diseases”.