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When and how will Germany’s lockdown measures end?

Germany is hopeful that strict social distancing measures are helping to stem the coronavirus pandemic. Now questions are being raised over what will happen after the partial lockdown ends.

When and how will Germany's lockdown measures end?
How will Germany get back to normal life after the pandemic? This is Bad Hersfeld in Hesse. Photo: DPA

When will shops and schools re-open? When will people be allowed to go outside freely again? Will everyone be able to go to work again soon? These are just some of the questions we're all asking as we look towards the future when the pandemic eases in Germany.

Now a new internal government draft action plan, viewed by some media outlets including the Tagesspiegel, sheds some light on what Germany’s path out of its current partial lockdown could look like. 

On the record, the German government has stressed that any relaxation of strict coronavirus rules are – so far – not on the agenda. 

READ ALSO: Germany debates post-lockdown plan as Merkel calls coronavirus 'biggest test in EU history'

Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly urged people in Germany to be patient and to stick to social distancing measures, which include a ban on gatherings of more than two people and the closure of schools and non-essential shops. 

Merkel said on Monday that restrictions on free movement and business closures, in effect in Germany since March 22nd, would remain in place until at least April 19th and that it was too early to talk about relaxing the lockdown.

“Nothing will change in this regard,” said Merkel.

At the same time, however, Merkel indicated that the government is thinking about the future and how public life can be re-introduced “while maintaining health protection”.

It came as Austria on Tuesday set out plans to become the first country in Europe to ease its lockdown against the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the plans, a gradual lifting of restrictions will take place, with shops due to reopen as early as next week. However, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said months of controlling measures still lie ahead.

Bavaria's state premier Markus Söder stressed that in Germany the restrictions are likely to remain in place for some time yet. “We must be careful and not risk a relapse,” he said.

Söder said he would only consider which restrictions can be relaxed in Bavaria and Germany after the Easter holidays. The step-by-step model planned in Austria could act as role model, he said.

A quiet street in central Aachen on Tuesday. Photo: DPA

Pandemic can be kept under control without lockdown

The internal paper showing what Germany post-lockdown might look like is currently being circulated in the government.

According to this draft document, the strict measures should be relaxed as quickly as possible. Even though the pandemic will probably go on until 2021, it can be kept under control without an “extensive lockdown”, says the paper.

Here’s an overview of the draft plan:

  • Initially after the lockdown, some retailers and restaurants could reopen
  • In certain regions, schools could also reopen
  • Major events and private parties are to remain banned for a longer period of time
  • To prevent a renewed rise in coronavirus infections, the paper recommends making it compulsory to wear protective masks in buses, trains, factories and other buildings
  • There would be rapid tracing of infection chains, with infected people having to quarantine at home or in hotels

According to the paper, scientists are closely watching the infection rate per sick person. “It must be reduced to well below 1.0 on a sustained basis,” the paper states, before measures can be relaxed. This means that an infected person would only infect one other person with the virus.

The reproductive number – the number of secondary infections generated from one infected individual – is understood to be between 2 and 2.5 for the Covid-19 virus in general, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report.

According to Robert Koch Institute head Lothar Wieler, the reproduction rate of coronavirus infections in Germany is currently between 1.2 and 1.5. This is slightly higher than at the end of last week. On Friday, Wieler had put the factor at 1.

So what might the relaxed lockdown look like in different sectors of public life? Here's an overview of what could happen.

Some businesses and restaurants allowed to open but with conditions

Pre-defined economic and industrial sectors of particular relevance would be the first to get revived after the lockdown – but only if they have established their own protection systems. 

And the following “rule of thumb” must apply: “The more customer contact, the later the return to normality”. 

Certain sectors of the business world could therefore initially resume operations as “islands”, provided that they do not provide too much customer contact.

READ ALSO: What's the latest on coronavirus in Germany and what do I need to know?

Cafes and restaurants could also reopen relatively soon. But only with a limited number of guests. The ban on major events, meetings, private celebrations and clubs would remain in place for a longer period of time.

Strict measures in schools and other educational facilities

Schools and other educational institutions could initially be reopened regionally. There could be strict controls put in place at school entrances, with options for Covid-19 tests in some cases.

The paper states that special task forces should be set up to prepare for the opening of specific areas of life such as schools or universities. These task forces should also develop rules of conduct.

What about testing and tracing infection chains?

The concept proposed in the internal paper would only work if people with coronavirus are quickly detected and isolated.

But this would require a massive expansion of laboratory capacities across Germany. Experts say that 80 to 100 percent of all contact people of a person confirmed to be infected with coronavirus would need to be found and tested within 24 hours.

The internal paper states: “Our estimates suggest that German testing capacities per day must be increased from the current 60,000 to 500,000 by the end of May in order to achieve effective control when the lockdown is gradually lifted.”

And in order to achieve a slow infection rate in society and to avoid overburdening the health system, real-time tests and reporting systems are crucial.

READ ALSO: German virologists say people 'initially immune' after coronavirus infection

To be able to quarantine 80 to 100 percent of the contacts of an infected person at home or in hotels within 24 hours, the German government could also rely on a voluntary app.

The Robert Koch Institute is already moving in this direction. The public health organisation launched an app on Tuesday April 7th called Corona Datenspende (Corona Data Donation).

People enjoying the sun in Berlin's Tempelhof air field on Sunday. Photo: DPA

It allows people to voluntarily and anonymously share information from their fitness trackers, such as a Smartwatch or fitness bracelet, that could reveal signs of a Covid-19 infection.

The free app will log a person's postcode, age and weight and keep track of any changes in activity and sleep habits, heart rate or even body temperature that could be symptoms of an acute respiratory disease.

Tests and protective masks

The internal paper proposes to set up mobile test stations. In local regions at risk, screenings of the entire population living there two to three times would be useful, while regions without new infections would also have to be specifically screened.

As soon as sufficient protective masks are available, compulsory masks on buses and trains, and in factories and buildings should be introduced. This is what the draft paper states under the heading “transition to virus control phase”.

Changed working hours after lockdown

The Labour Ministry in agreement with the Health Ministry, has also submitted a draft 'Covid-19 Working Time Regulation'. This stipulates that “for a limited period of time, longer working hours, shorter rest periods and the employment of workers on Sundays and public holidays for certain activities” are also possible.

It would mean medical staff could work for longer in some cases during the crisis but not permanently.

Social changes

The internal concept paper focuses on the personal responsibility of the individual. It is crucial for the success of the strategy that people continue to keep their distance from each other, the experts state.

The “promotion of social acceptance of distance measures by providing information on risk-appropriate behaviour” would therefore have to be high on the political agenda.

Ultimately, it would require “an extraordinary effort on the part of society as a whole, involving the federal government, civil society, science, businesses and the Bundeswehr (German army)”, the paper states.

Could Germany's federalism be an obstacle to lifting restrictions?

As Germany is a federal country, power is devolved on many issues to each state. And this may not make post-lockdown life easier as each state does things a slightly different way.

READ ALSO: ANALYSIS: When will the coronavirus epidemic peak in Germany?

Experts point to regionally varying case numbers and infection risks. For example, in Berlin, bookstores and bicycle shops are allowed to remain open. In Bavaria, bookstores have to be shut.

In Hamburg, on the other hand, flower shops may be open, but not in Bremen.

Different rules in states could make coordinating action that little bit trickier.

What will happen regarding citizens in risk groups?

According to the draft concept paper, the some 20 million residents in Germany who are particularly at risk should receive special protection.

People in elderly and nursing homes will likely have to continue to live with restrictions at least initially.  Visiting bans, for example, will stay in place in areas where the coronavirus epidemic is particularly bad.

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COVID-19 RULES

EXPLAINED: The Covid rules in place across German states

Many Covid restrictions have been dropped in Germany, but some rules remain in place. And as infections increase again, it's important to be aware of what you should do if you get Covid.

EXPLAINED: The Covid rules in place across German states

Germany has relaxed or changed many Covid restrictions in recent months. However, with Covid infections rocketing again, people are reminding themselves of what rules remain in place, and what they have to do if they get a positive test.

Here’s a quick roundup of what you should know. 

Face masks

Covid masks have to be worn when travelling on public transport, including planes departing to and from Germany. 

They also have to be worn in places where there are more vulnerable people, such as care homes, hospitals and doctor offices. 

Masks are not mandatory anymore in shops (including supermarkets) and restaurants, but individual businesses can enforce the rule so watch out for signs on the door. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s current Covid mask rules

FFP2 masks have become the standard in Germany, but in some cases other medical masks are sufficient.

There are no longer any entry rules to public venues such as the 3G or 2G rule, meaning that people had to show proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test. 

However, they could return in autumn if the infection protection laws are adapted, and if the Covid situation gets worse.

Mandatory isolation 

The rules on isolation differ from state to state, but there is one general requirement: those who test positive for Covid have to go into isolation at home and avoid all contact with people outside the household. The isolation period lasts at least five days or a maximum of 10 days.

If you get a positive result at home, you should go to a test centre and undergo a rapid antigen test. If it is positive, the quarantine obligation kicks in. If it is negative, you have to get a PCR test.

If you have Covid symptoms, you should contact your doctor, local health authorities or the non-emergency medical on-call service on 116 117. They can advise or whether you should get a PCR test. 

Across German states, the isolation period lasts 10 days, but – as we mentioned above – there are differences on how it can end earlier. 

In Berlin, for instance, it can be shortened from the fifth day with a negative test if you have been symptom free for 48 hours. If this isn’t the case, the isolation is extended until you have been symptom-free for 48 hours and tested negative. But you can leave without a negative test after 10 days. 

A positive Covid test.

A positive Covid test. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

Anyone who tests positive for Covid using a rapid test at a testing centre can have a free PCR test to confirm whether they have Covid-19. If the PCR test is negative, there is no obligation to go into quarantine.

In Bavaria, the isolation period is five days after the first positive test. For isolation to end on day five you must be symptom free for at least 48 hours. Otherwise, isolation is extended for 48 hours at a time until the maximum of 10 days. 

A test-to-release is not needed to end the isolation, unless the person works in a medical setting. 

READ ALSO: Germany sets out new Covid isolation rules

After isolation, Bavaria recommends that you wear an FFP2 mask in public places indoors and reduce contact for an extra five days. 

The state of Hesse has a similar system to Bavaria where a test is not needed to end the isolation early (unless the person works in a medical setting).

In North Rhine-Westphalia and Hamburg, residents can end their Covid isolation on the fifth day if they get a negative test (carried out at a testing centre). Otherwise the isolation period continues until the 10th day, or until they get a negative test.

Close contacts of people infected with Covid (including household contacts) no longer have to quarantine in Germany, but they are advised to get tested regularly and monitor for symptoms, as well as reduce contacts for five days. 

As ever, check with your local authority for the detailed rules.

Travel

Germany recently provisionally dropped almost all of its Covid travel restrictions, making it much easier to enter the country. 

The changes mean that entry into Germany is now allowed for all travel purposes, including tourism. The move makes travel easier – and cheaper – for people coming from non-EU countries, particularly families who may have needed multiple Covid tests for children. 

People also no longer have to show proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test against Covid before coming to Germany – the so-called 3G rule. 

However, if a country is classed as a ‘virus variant’ region, tougher rules are brought in. 

It is likely that travel rules could be reinstated again after summer or if the Covid situation gets worse so keep an eye on any developments. 

READ ALSO: Germany drops Covid entry restrictions for non-EU travellers

Vaccine mandate

The mandate making Covid vaccinations compulsory for medical staff remains in place. A vaccine mandate that would have affected more of the population in Germany was rejected by the Bundestag in a vote in April

READ ALSO: Germany’s top court approves Covid vaccine mandate for health care workers

Workplaces

Masks are no longer mandatory in workplaces, unless it is in a setting where more risks groups are, such as hospitals or care homes. 

The government no longer requires people to work from home, but employers and employees can reach their own ‘home office’ arrangement.

Tests are also no longer mandatory, but workplaces can offer their employees regular tests. 

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