VIENNA (Reuters) - Crowds of possibly infected people fleeing ski resorts during Austria's worst coronavirus outbreak was the result of poor preparation by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's government before he announced a quarantine there, a panel of experts said on Monday.
In an attempt to contain Austria's biggest cluster to date, at the ski resort of Ischgl, and another at the resort of St Anton, Kurz announced an immediate quarantine at both on March 13, but his government had not informed the local authorities that had to implement the measures.
"The Austrian chancellor announced the imposition of the quarantines unexpectedly, without immediate authority and without substantive preparations," Ronald Rohrer, head of a panel of experts appointed by the province of Tyrol to look into its handling of the epidemic, told a news conference.
The panel's report, published on Monday, said the federal government had failed to communicate properly with the authorities in Tyrol, the province that includes both resorts.
In his announcement Kurz said foreign tourists would be allowed to leave but, instead of an orderly departure, there was a panicked rush.
"Guests virtually ran to their cars in ski boots, rental skis were simply thrown into shop entrances, hotel rooms were hastily abandoned with personal items left inside," said Rohrer, a former Supreme Court judge, citing witnesses' statements.
It was not clear where the decision to impose quarantines originated but it appeared to be in Vienna, Rohrer said. Kurz said it came from ministerial coronavirus crisis cells and he assumed preparations were made, said Rohrer, adding that he did not have the authority to investigate the federal government.
The Ischgl outbreak has caused fury in Germany, Austria's biggest source of foreign tourists, many of whose nationals were infected.
A private consumer rights group that is bringing lawsuits over Ischgl says the chaotic quarantines worsened the outbreak.
The panel found there was no evidence, however, of another allegation - that vested economic interests pressured the local authorities to delay their response.
The first confirmed case in Ischgl - an employee in an apres-ski bar called Kitzloch - tested positive on March 7. Austria's public health agency believes the virus actually arrived in Ischgl a month earlier.
The panel found the district authorities reacted promptly to the first indications of infections in early March but then made various mistakes, including allowing Kitzloch to reopen.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Gareth Jones)