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HEALTH

Can you be forced to take a coronavirus test after returning to Germany from a risk country?

Compulsory coronavirus tests at airports for people returning from risk countries start this week in Germany. Can authorities force travellers to take the test?

Can you be forced to take a coronavirus test after returning to Germany from a risk country?
A sign for a coronavirus test centre at Stuttgart airport. Photo: DPA

What's happening?

Egypt, the Dominican Republic, the US or Turkey: if you return to Germany from one of these countries, you can expect a swab at the airport soon.

Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn, of Angela Merkel's centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) announced last week there would be mandatory coronavirus tests for travellers returning to Germany from countries deemed at risk.

This will come into force over the course of this week, according to the government. Airports across Germany have been setting up test centres.

Travellers entering Germany from a risk area must be tested either up to 48 hours before their entry or up to 72 hours after arriving in Germany, for example directly at the airport.

Upon returning, any travellers who test positively must make their way to their destination directly. Until a negative test can be presented, they must self-isolate at home for up to 14 days (home quarantine). Implementation of the procedures lies with the 16 federal states.

What's a risk country and who's affected?

A list of risk areas is maintained by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). In its latest version it ranges from Afghanistan and Egypt to the USA and the Central African Republic. The EU country Luxembourg is also on it. And since Friday also parts of Spain, namely the regions of Aragón, Catalonia and Navarre.

Thousands of people will be affected by the new rules: the number of returnees from the 130 coronavirus risk countries worldwide is currently around 16,000 passengers per week at Frankfurt Airport alone, according to the operator Fraport.

At the Berlin airports Tegel and Schönefeld, the number is around 2,000 a day each, according to the operator FBB.

According to the federal government, commuters from risk areas are usually exempt from the quarantine obligation according to their respective state law. They are therefore not required to present a test certificate. If they want, they are  eligible to be tested for free for a period of up to 72 hours following their arrival in Germany.

Are mandatory tests legal?

Lawyers believe Spahn's plan is legitimate. “A test is an encroachment on the right to physical integrity,” jurist Thorsten Kingreen from the University of Regensburg told Spiegel. “But the goal of infection control is legitimate and the intervention reasonable.”

He is not alone in this assessment. On the Germany broadcaster MDR, two experts expressed similar opinions: Alexander Thiele, expert in constitutional law at the University of Göttingen, and Stefan Huster, Professor of Public and Health Law in Bochum.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany's plans for mandatory Covid-19 tests for returning travellers

A person being tested at Stuttgart airport on Monday. Photo: DPA

Incidentally, a mandatory test at the airport is already possible; it is regulated in Section 5 of the Protection Against Infection Act. The only new aspect of Spahn's plan is that tests are now also to be carried out at the airport.

What happens if someone refuses the test?

The authorities then have different options such as imposing a fine or ordering a quarantine, or both.

However, a coercive test with the help of police is also possible, said Jörg Radek, deputy chairman of the police union.

“In the end we have to enforce the law, and in the end also with coercion, said Radek In an interview with Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland. He stressed that compulsory tests required a “high degree of understanding from the population”.

Wilhelm Achelpöhler is a specialist lawyer for administrative law and a member of the committee on danger prevention law of the German Bar Association (DAV). He told Spiegel: “Immediate coercion would be conceivable if someone does not want to be tested.”

READ ALSO: What's it like travelling in Germany and crossing borders in Covid times?

To prevent a test by legal means is difficult in his eyes.

Theoretically, according to Achelpöhler, it is conceivable that a traveller might inform his or her lawyer shortly after landing.

The lawyer would then have to file an emergency petition with an administrative court, which could then inform the police officers. “In practice, this would probably be difficult to carry out,” said Achelpöhler. He also believes that a lawsuit would have little chance of success.

For more information on the tests visit the German government website.

'Relatively high' number of people testing positive

Meanwhile, around 2.5 percent of holidaymakers have tested positive for coronavirus so far after returning to the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, according to authorities.

NRW health minister Karl-Josef Laumann said there was a “relatively high” rate of people testing positive when they arrive from risk areas to airports in Germany's most populous state.

Laumann said around 40 to 50 percent of those returning made use of the free testing offer. According to the Corona-entry regulation, returnees from these areas have had to present a negative test no older than 48 hours or go into quarantine for 14 days since mid-July.

READ ALSO: How to get tested for coronavirus at German airports

Laumann called these requirements “absolutely correct”. “Anyone who goes on holiday to a risk area must at least, I think, have enough solidarity with the people here to rule out infecting other people when he or she returns,” he said.

If travellers refuse a test, their details should be passed on to the local health authority, Laumann said.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, free test offers for travellers from at-risk countries began a week ago at the airports of Düsseldorf, Cologne/Bonn, Dortmund and Münster/Osnabrück. Last week, about 160 planes with about 15,000 passengers from areas currently designated as risk areas by the Robert Koch Institute – such as Turkey, Egypt, Morocco and Israel – landed at the four airports.

At Cologne/Bonn Airport alone, about 600 swabs for coronavirus tests per day are currently being taken, a spokeswoman for the city said. From 18th to 30th July, there were almost 5,000 tests. A total of 51 infected vacationers were identified. “Without the test, they would be out there right now,” said the spokeswoman.

Checks are difficult to enforce for those returning by car. However, Laumann appealed to the sense of responsibility and conscience of the people concerned to have themselves tested or to go into quarantine for 14 days if they might have become infected.

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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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