Ampel room for improvement? The baby elephant in the room

Forgive the pun, dear readers, but the word on everyone’s lips in Vienna is “Ampelsystem”, which is the (modified) traffic light system being used as guidance for measures in force for containing the spread of COVID-19. The Ampelsystem was introduced in time for the start of the new school year in Vienna, Lower Austria and Burgenland, with other provinces returning to school this coming Monday. As I started typing up my thoughts on the matter, I saw the 2020-21 school year descend upon their schools, armed with their Schultuten and then return home around an hour later after what I would have known as a “form period”, the first day of school having been suitably done and dusted.

After some very prescriptive legislation regarding the handling of the Covid-19 crisis, which is now definitely in a second wave of infection, with daily new infection numbers at the same level as at the start of and the easing of the lockdown back in the spring, orders are giving way for recommendations. But what good are recommendations where people are clearly flagging in terms of their resolve, and social distancing is widely ignored, and Vienna’s current infections figures are going up? The Ampelsystem seems to have quite a room for discretion being applied.

The notion of traffic lights and corona is not new – the CSH Corona Ampel has been plotting the trends in terms of new infections since April 2020 over the preceding 14 days – a sensible approach that evens out rogue increases from one day to the next. And it uses a simple, tried and tested red-amber-green approach. However, the new government “Corona Ampel” takes it a stage further, with a red-orange-yellow-green traffic light. Currently Vienna is handled as a whole, so all twenty three districts with their differing population densities, social group breakdowns, ethnic breakdowns and the like are tarred with a single brush. It has taken me a while to semi work out what the differences are between yellow and orange, which boils down to whether the infections are in contained clusters or not.

My wife, a teacher in secondary education, was forced to sit down with colleagues (virtually) to try to work out exactly what her school has to do, and how communications with parents have to be, and to be drilled on how they have to act in the case that they spy someone with symptoms (no doubt using their bionic teaching eyes in the back of their heads that all teachers possess). It is little wonder that some teachers just long to be able to teach to plan their teaching, rather than having to partake in weekly mastication sessions about how they will be able to teach in the coming school week. One measure is an all staff WhatsApp group, and now my wife dreads every ping of her phone that there might be an update, or that her preparations for lessons might have been in vain.

Rhyme or reason appear to be in short supply with the Ampelsystem and education – from the eagerness of getting all the children back to school (even though 17-21 year olds are apparently accountable for a lot of the new cases), noises in some quarters have already emerged that a return to homeschooling may be on the cards sooner rather than later, if rumours of a change of traffic light come to fruition (Vienna is safe for the next seven days as I write on 12 September). Yesterday’s pronouncements suggest that while Vienna remains yellow (not politically, where it has stayed red since the end of World War 2!) there are indications that it might slip into “orange” territory.

Viennese unease with traffic lights is well known. From my experiences living close to a Viennese rat-run, I would certainly concur with the following appraisal of the situation.

Austrians have interesting interpretations of traffic signals.

But this is Austria, the country famed last year for its “snap election” that took four months to take place, nothing is quick and simple (a bit like some of the road crossings in Vienna and the “grĂĽne/rote Welle” of all lights being in your favour or against you. With corona traffic lights are not as simple as stop-wait-go, but instead there is an apparent need for a fourth traffic light. Normal traffic lights have been criticised for their inaccessibility to the colour blind, but the Coronaampel has gone one further by added an extra “grey zone” – of what is yellow and what is orange – and yellow looks orange on a lot of devices I have seen the graphics on. And this is without then apply a political filter (I don’t mean an extra traffic light to allow people to turn right before the go straight queue is green) or deciding what to do.

Currently, the Ampelkommission knocks up a new set of recommendations every Friday. The problem being that it can recommend until it is blue/red/yellow/orange/green in the face, but can’t actually implement the recommendations. That is a job for another part of the government, and due to legislative procedure the implementation of yesterday’s measures will only clear the National Council (Nationalrat) in late September and October will be on us, before they finally clear the Bundesrat. So Vienna is yellow, but how yellow? Yesterday’s yellow is the same as last week’s apart from the stricter recommendations. Great. Elsewhere – the initial gambit was to have Linz at yellow, although infection rates were far lower, and Linz has now (rightfully according to a proud Austrian friend) been “given the green light again”. There is talk of trying to differentiate in Vienna between individual districts, but this will surely only muddy the waters, and create more confusion. The Cottagegasse might be say yellow at one end and orange at the other. We only need to look at the situation of North West England, where in Greater Manchester, as my brother informed me one one side of a road it is near lockdown, while the other side can carry on as usual, including heading to the pub.

The UK’s recent removal of Austria from the Travel Corridor (thanks to Vienna Expats for this FAQ!) shows the tipping point of a 7 day day average of 20 cases per 100,000 population is a contentious threshold – 19.9/100,000 is really not a lot better than 20.1/100,000, and in a small country like Austria the difference between the two is only 18 cases. That is a small superspreader party. And that makes the difference between being able to travel to the UK with its left-field approach to containing the virus. As things stand though, Austria is not close to being reinstated to the travel corridor.

Of course, it is not the first time that traffic lights have hit the news, after all when Vienna City Council introduced the Ampelpärchen ahead of the hosting of ESC 2015 (after Conchita Wurst’s flying like an eagle in 2014) in what was originally supposed to be a temporary measure there was an uproar. The furore of their removal has meant that they have now become a permanent fixture, and are now a well accepted part of Vienna’s urban landscape. In 2019, there was an announcement about “thinking traffic lights” which have apparently been rolled out (although I am not actually sure that I have ever really observed them in real life), that work out demand using cameras. If only there was some joined up thinking over the corona traffic lights.

The differentiation between Gelb and Orange in the Coronaampel is a bit like the traffic light sequence in the UK where “amber” is both used to advise motorists of the fact that the lights are about to change to green (displayed constantly together with red) and also from green back to red (as flashing amber), a stark ambiguity. And of course with the change of the corona lights to orange, a return to yellow will be wrongly interpreted by many as an “all clear” – when yellow is not in fact a desirable state to be in.

Perhaps though we should be thankful for some light-based mercies: fortunately they have not chosen to emulate another “traffic light”-like concept in Vienna, namely the Wetterleuchte that adorn the Vienna Insurance Group’s Ringturm. Red lights indicate rising/falling temperatures and storm warnings, while green lights indicate temperature changes. And snow warnings are given by white light. Driving along the Lände towards Schwedenplatz the lights are a landmark. The potential for misxed signals that tehy could bring if redeployed as Coronaampel could be disastrous.

Lastly, it is necessary to think about the elephant in the room – the baby elephant that is used as a convenient measurement for social distancing. If there is a second lockdown, one Austrian guardian of usage sincerely hopes that the talk will be of Elefantenbabys and not Babyelefanten.