Austria’s chancellor says Netanyahu ‘shocked’ him into tough moves to stop virus

Sebastian Kurz says Israeli PM warned that Europe was underestimating the threat, urged him to ‘wake up and take action’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, June 11, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, June 11, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said he ratcheted up measures to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus after speaking to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who warned him in a phone call that Europe was underestimating the devastating impact of the pandemic.

In an interview with Germany’s Bild on Friday, Kurz said Netanyahu stressed to him two weeks ago that Europe was going to be hard-hit by the virus, and “shocked” him out his relative complacency.

“Netanyahu told me, ‘You underestimate this in Europe… Wake up and take action.'”

In the wake of the call, and also after talking to several Asian heads of government, Kurt introduced a raft of restrictions which he said on Friday would now remain in force until April 13.

On March 11, Austria was still allowing gatherings of up to 500 people outdoors and schools remained open. By March 15, it had banned all gatherings of five or more people and shut schools, restaurants and businesses.

Since March 16 it has only allowed people to leave home in very limited circumstances, such as working — if it is not possible to work from home — buying food or helping others.

Kurz appealed in the interview for the population to “hang on” and acknowledged that this required a “lot of sacrifices.”

“We will continuously evaluate if from April 14 we can lift the measures step by step to get back to business as usual,” he added.

As of Friday, the Alpine nation of almost nine million people said it had recorded more than 2,200 cases of the novel coronavirus and six deaths.

The daily increase of new cases has slowed slightly and now stands at 20 percent, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said, adding this was still “insufficient.”

Authorities continue to appeal to citizens to abide by the strict measures. Some 1,200 infringements were committed during the week, said Interior Minister Karl Nehammer. Those who don’t comply with the measures face fines up to 3,600 euros ($3,900).

Austria has also passed strict travel restrictions, leading to flight and railway transport cancellations from Italy and other countries hit by the virus.

It further said Thursday it was placing all arrivals by air in mandatory 14-day home quarantine. Only transit passengers, medical professionals and staff from international organizations are exempt.

The western province of Tyrol was placed under lockdown last week, in addition to several communes in two other western provinces after multiple cases in the region bordering Italy.

Kurz and Netanyahu have warm relations, and the Austrian chancellor was the first world leader to congratulate Netanyahu after March 2’s elections for ostensibly winning.

“Sincere congratulations to Prime Minister @netanyahu on his clear election victory! I am looking forward to continuing to work together with you in order to further strengthen our excellent bilateral relations and fight anti-Semitism & anti-Zionism,” he tweeted on March 3, long before all votes had been counted and the Central Elections Committee had published conclusive results.

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