What you need to know about Germany's plans for mandatory Covid-19 tests for returning travellers
Residents returning to Germany from coronavirus risk areas will have to be tested for the virus under new plans being drawn up.
What's the latest?
Health Minister Jens Spahn announced on Monday that in future people coming into Germany from risk areas will have to undergo a compulsory coronavirus test. Germany already introduced testing for all returning travellers but this is the first time that tests will be mandatory for people coming from areas with high infection rates.
Tests will be free of charge. Testing should "never be a cost issue for the individual" and also "not a social issue", the politician who's a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats said on German broadcaster ZDF on Monday evening.
Why is this happening?
Authorities are increasingly concerned about German residents bringing the virus back to the country after travel.
Millions of German citizens are travelling again at home and abroad after coronavirus travel restrictions began being lifted in June.
The aim of the new measures are to prevent infected holidaymakers from regions with major coronavirus outbreaks from spreading in Germany.
Cases of people bringing the virus into Germany have already been detected in the past weeks as the summer travel season kicked in. Last week, a family in Cottbus was confirmed to have picked up coronavirus after returning from the Spanish island of Mallorca.
Meanwhile, there were also reports on Tuesday of a couple bringing returning from the UK to Berlin with Covid-19.
At the beginning of the pandemic, residents coming back from holidays in coronavirus hotspots such as those in Austria and Italy contributed to spreading the virus across Germany. Authorities are desperate to avoid a similar situation which could spark a second wave.
Will everyone coming into Germany be tested?
No. Authorities say only people coming from zones with high infection rates will face a mandatory test. Those returning from countries not deemed risk areas will have the option of getting a test but they don't have to.
A testing station at Leipzig/Halle airport. Photo: DPA
Note that at this stage the plans do not account for arrivals visiting Germany.
Spahn ruled out extending the obligation to non-risk countries. "In the end (...) this is an intrusion into personal freedom," said Spahn. This kind of intervention must "of course also be well justified" and "be proportionate".
Spahn announced the plans on Monday after a meeting with health ministers from Germany's 16 federal states.
The legal basis of the testing rule comes from the Protection Against Infection Act. It refers to an epidemic situation of national importance, which the Bundestag had determined for the coronavirus crisis. It means the Health Ministry can order people who enter Germany and who could have been exposed to an increased risk of infection to undergo a medical examination.
Where is there currently a travel warning?
For more than 160 countries outside the EU, the Federal Foreign Office has issued an initial travel warning until August 31st.
For most European countries, it was lifted on June 15th and replaced by individual travel and security warnings for specific countries.
What is a risk zone anyway?
Together with the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the federal government determines a list which shows the countries considered to be risk zones.
The central criteria is states or regions that have registered more than 50 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the last seven days.
In the latest version, the list ranges from Afghanistan and Egypt to the USA and the Central African Republic. The EU country Luxembourg is also included. Popular holiday destinations like Spain and Italy are not on the list. For the latest version of the list click here.
Since the weekend, voluntary tests for returnees from risk areas have been possible at several German airports.
Travellers from non-risk countries can also voluntarily have themselves tested free of charge within 72 hours – not at the airport, but in doctors' surgeries or health authorities.
What else should I know?
The new measures will see test facilities installed at airports across the country so that those returning from risk zones can be tested directly on arrival.
Those who test positive on arrival will be forced to quarantine at home for 14 days. While waiting for results, people will have to quarantine.
Berlin health minister Dilek Kalayci said that Germany's state health ministers had also decided to reintroduce exit cards with travellers' flight data.
Despite the planned measures, there is still a risk of more coronavirus outbreaks stemming from holiday travel, federal Health Minister Spahn warned.
"We must continue to look after each other," he said, adding that it's important to remain vigilant.
"The carelessness that arises in everyday life, on holiday. Illegal parties, the pictures we see worry me a lot," said Spahn in reference to reports of people ignoring restrictions put in place to stem the spread of Covid-19.
"Keep your distance, pay attention to each other, and when in doubt, let yourself be tested when you come back from such regions, or from your holidays in general," Spahn added.
What do people make of the plans?
The President of the German Medical Association, Klaus Reinhardt, backed the move for compulsory testing of returnees from risk areas.
"From a medical point of view, it is desirable and reasonable that all travel returnees from risk countries should have themselves tested," he told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper on Tuesday.
However, lawyers will no doubt want to clarify whether this kind of obligation is legally sound, he said.
Although there is uncertainty when it comes to testing in view of the incubation period, "even if we only detect a part of the infected returnees, it would make sense and be a success," said Reinhardt.
Currently, there is a "slight, but clearly noticeable increase in new infections in Germany," said Reinhardt. However, this is not only due to holidaymakers, "but also to the increased mobility and the withdrawal of (coronavirus) restrictions".
On Tuesday Germany had registered 205,600 cases and 9,118 deaths, according to the Robert Koch Institute. Around 190,400 people have reportedly recovered.