Shoppers in Austria have been ordered to wear facemasks as the country braces itself for the coronavirus “storm”.
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz warned that Austria’s intensive care capacity could be exceeded by mid-April and said the infection rate remains “far too high”.
This is despite the closure of restaurants, bars, schools, theatres and non-essential shops. People have been asked to stay at home and work from there if possible.
Austria has reported 108 deaths and more than 9,000 cases, far fewer than neighbour Italy which has been overwhelmed by the virus and is under an almost complete lockdown.
"Many cannot imagine what is heading our way within weeks, but the truth is that this is the calm before the storm. And to tell how horrific that storm can be, you can look at our neighbour Italy," Mr Kurz said.
"As of the moment, these masks are handed out in front of supermarkets it will be compulsory to wear them in supermarkets," Mr Kurz said, adding that the aim in the medium-term was for people to wear them in public more generally as well.
While the masks would not protect the wearer against infection, they would stop them sneezing or coughing on others and potentially infecting them, he added.
Austria has also been forced to fly in more than 200 workers from eastern Europe to support the care of the vulnerable and elderly. Much of the country’s social care sector is reliant on staff from eastern Europe who often shuttle back and forth, staying for weeks at a time.
The German city of Jena has followed Austria’s actions as cases continue to rise despite the introduction of country-wide measures to stem the spread of the virus.
Virologist Professor Christian Drosten is among those to have endorsed calls for the public to wear facemasks. He himself wears one.
But other experts have been sceptical of the effectiveness of facemasks despite their widespread use.
Even Mr Kurz admitted the masks are no substitute for social distancing.
Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation warned on Monday that “there is no specific evidence” that the wearing of masks by the general population has “any particular benefit”.
"In fact there is some evidence to suggest the opposite in the misuse or (not) wearing a mask properly or fitting it properly or taking it off and all the other risks that are otherwise associated with that,” he added.