Austria criticised for failing to prevent Ischgl ski resort infecting 44 nations with Covid

Tourist spot linked to an ‘avalanche’ of more than 6,000 cases and believed to be Europe’s ground zero

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the ski resort, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Ischgl, Austria, October 9, 2020. Picture taken October 9, 2020. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner/File Photo

The small Austrian resort of Ischgl, nestled in the Alps, has long been popular with tourists for its miles of pistes and lively apres-ski scene.

But the tourist hotspot has gained notoriety for a different reason after being accused of failing to halt the initial spread of Covid-19 across Europe.

Now branded Europe’s ground zero, more than 6,000 people from 44 different countries have lodged a class action against the country, claiming the resort was warned it had a problem with Covid-19 but failed to act until it was too late.

"A year ago, Ischgl was a super spreader area for the Covid-19 virus," lawyer Peter Kolba, who runs the Consumer Protection Association (VSV), told The National.

“We have got reports from more than 6,000 victims all over the world from 44 countries, from every continent. The majority have come from Germany, with 4,000 victims. Most had been in the resort in the second week of March.

“On March 13 last year, the imposition of a quarantine over the Paznaun valley in Tyrol, Austria, sank the area into chaos. It led to thousands of infected people being distributed across Europe.

“We think their infections could have been prevented if the resort had been closed. The administration made a big mistake and we are now filing actions against the state of Austria."

The actions could see €100,000 ($117,000) paid in damages to the relatives of those who died and €12,000 ($14,313) to others who were infected.

ISCHGL, AUSTRIA - NOVEMBER 27: Skiers are pictured during the winter season opening on November 27, 2010 in Ischgl, Austria. Ischgl has more then 230 kilometers of ski slopes and is one of Austria's biggest mountain resorts. (Photo by Miguel Villagran/Getty Images)

VSV is dealing with almost 4,000 cases in Germany, 798 in the Netherlands, 223 in Britain, 156 in Switzerland and other nations, including the UAE, the US, Canada, Cambodia and Zimbabwe.

Austria was warned by Iceland on March 1 that a number of its citizens had been infected after returning from Ischgl, which has just 1,600 permanent residents, but it took a further 13 days for authorities to close the resort.

ISCHGL, AUSTRIA - MARCH 13: A police officer at a roadblock asks the driver of a car driving out of the Panznautal valley for a drive through permission following the imposition of a quarantine due to the coronavirus on March 14, 2020 near Ischgl, Austria. The ski resort towns of Sankt Anton and Ischgl are both under quarantine and many ski resorts in the region have been closed. The Austrian government is pursuing aggressive measures, including closing schools, cancelling events and shuttering shops except for grocery stores and pharmacies in an effort to slow the ongoing spread of the coronavirus. (Photo by Jan Hetfleisch/Getty Images)

When it finally shut its doors, it was with such urgency that it gave tourists only hours to depart.

That led to thousands of people piling into buses from the resort to the airport, the roads becoming gridlocked, and skiers stuck on crowded public transport in seven-hour queues trying to leave on the last planes.

“In the most terrible cases we are dealing with people [that] died or were very ill due to the infection and they caught it because there was a delay in closing the apres-ski bars and the whole ski village,” Mr Kolba said.

"People have also lost money from being ill and quarantining. Three per cent of the people we represent were in hospital and 32 are the relatives of people who died because of the infection.

“It would have been better if they had shutdown a week before on the weekend of March 7 and 8.

“Austria was warned. It was not until a press conference on Friday, March 13, at 2pm that Austria announced Ischgl was in isolation, but it was not co-ordinated with the local administration and as a result people left the valley in a very chaotic way.

“It saw 10,000 leaving who were spread all over the world, most of them from Europe. If anybody was not infected during their last week they were when they left. Buses and taxis were stuck on the roads for hours and hours and people were squashed inside like sardines and at that time there were no orders to wear a mask.”

The infection is believed to have stemmed initially from an employee at the Kitzloch bar who fell ill with Covid-19 in late February.

ISCHGL, AUSTRIA - SEPTEMBER 11: The Kitzloch apres-ski bar and restaurant stands closed for the summer on September 11, 2020 in Ischgl, Austria. Ischgl became a superspreader locality for coronavirus infections among winter vacationers last March and authorities have pointed to crowded apres-ski venues as a strong contributing factor. At least 28 people died and 6,000 people world-wide have registered with an Austrian lawyer claiming they think they were infected in Ischgl. Meanwhile Ischgl's hotels, restaurants, ski lift operator and other businesses that are dependent on tourism are taking measures they hope will bring tourists back for the coming winter ski season and minimize the risk of Covid infections.   (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

However, the bar remained open until March 10 and the entire resort was only forced to close on March 13.

Austria’s health authority has now identified 'patient zero' as an Austrian waitress who started showing symptoms on February 8.

Authorities in Tyrol still dispute this and claim the first case appeared on March 7.

It was not until March 18 that officials extended the measures and ordered all 279 communities in Tyrol to isolate.

“It was a big mistake. Many tourists came home and infected people in their own countries,” Mr Kolba said.

“We know of cases where they infected their grandmas and grandfathers and also people who have died and they are not counted in this action. Our clients feel guilty themselves.

“The local Tyrol government on March 5 even made a press announcement that tourists from Iceland who were infected in the last week of February must have got infected on the plane going back. It is complete nonsense.”

The first legal proceedings against Austria are due to take place in Vienna’s Justice Palace next month.

"This is the start of an avalanche,” Mr Kolba said. “We are currently preparing about 100 further legal actions with legal expenses insurance and there are more daily.

“The first cases involve two widows, from Austria and Germany, whose husbands contracted Covid-19 in Ischgl, and two German citizens who have suffered long covid illnesses. The court is due to start hearing the cases in April and it will be a very important step in our fight for damages.

“In the summer of 2021, the VSV will also organise a collective action for victims who are not covered by legal protection.”

Ischgl and Tyrol have continued to deny mistakes were made.

"We implemented all regulations in a timely manner," Werner Kurz, the mayor of Ischgl, told German newspaper Der Spiegel.

Tyrol's health minister Bernhard Tilg has also denied that the ski season was closed too late or that tourists were allowed to leave the country in an uncontrolled manner.

"The authorities did everything right," he told Austrian broadcaster Österreichischer Rundfunk.

He attributed the spread to tourists who either carried it in or did not follow official guidance to return home.

An interim report commissioned by the government into the handling of the situation has made a series of recommendations, including the creation of a crisis management centre in Tyrol and the development of a community disaster plan.