Coronavirus: Five things to look out for in Germany this autumn

Life has been returning to the 'new normal' in Germany over the summer. But now with rising numbers and autumn ahead, the government faces a big dilemma: how do you stop a second coronavirus wave?

Coronavirus: Five things to look out for in Germany this autumn
Social distancing at a park in Düsseldorf in July. But are people in Germany remaining disciplined? Photo: DPA

A lot can happen in 10 weeks, especially during a worldwide pandemic. That's how long it's been since Chancellor Angela Merkel and German state leaders discussed coronavirus rules and the loosening of measures.

After that meeting on June 17th, the consensus was that Germany had successfully made it through the first part of the pandemic.

But over summer, new problems have emerged such as a spike in infections understood to be caused in part by travel and people ignoring distancing measures.

That means there could be some fresh rules discussed on Monday between health ministers, and on Thursday when Merkel plans to meet state premiers.

We looked at five major issues when it comes to the current Covid-19 situation in Germany and preventing a second wave.

READ ALSO: What can we expect from Germany's plans to tigthen coronavirus measures at social gatherings?

1. Testing and travel

Germany started providing free tests for all returning travellers from risk areas earlier in August, as well as increasing tests at airports and border crossing points for everyone coming back into the country.

It means the number of tests have “increased significantly compared to previous weeks,” the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) said. But this has created new difficulties.

A man being tested in Cologne on August 21st. Photo: DPA

Politicians in Germany went on their summer break without a stringent testing strategy, well aware that the longing for a vacation and visits home after months of restrictions creates new risks, wrote the German newspaper, Tagesspiegel.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, more than 50 percent of the positive virus cases for returning travellers recently were attributable to people coming back from Kosovo and Turkey, often after family visits.

The main problem is that test capacity limits are being reached in some places, especially in Berlin. In Bavaria there have been serious breakdowns in implementation.

Leading virologist Christian Drosten recommends the Berlin Senate stop free coronavirus tests at airports because of the test volume. Berlin labs can reportedly no longer deal with the planned testing of nursing staff in old people's homes.

And on Monday Health Minister Jens Spahn proposed getting rid of mandatory tests, signalling a change of course.

How many tests can Germany manage? Well, Spahn says Germany has a test capacity of about one million per week. While 570,746 people were tested in a week a month ago, the figure has now risen to 875,524. To date there have already been around ten million tests in Germany.

“The problem of scarce corona tests will become enormous in the next week,” said the Social Democrat health expert Karl Lauterbach, spelling out the danger ahead.

“In autumn we will have to clearly prioritize who gets a test,” he said.

Health experts including Drosten and Lauterbach have been calling for authorities to focus on clusters of infections, following the example of Japan, instead of testing everywhere.

READ ALSO: 'Target clusters and superspreaders': Here's how Germany could prevent a second coronavirus wave

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania's state premier Manuela Schwesig says a more focused approach is needed.

“We finally need a national testing strategy,” she said. “The federal government must assume more responsibility.”

There are also calls for rapid and cheaper tests to be introduced widely in Germany such as those being used in the UK.

2. Large events

Large events are banned in Germany until at least the end of October – that was decided by Merkel and the state leaders at their last meeting on June 17th.

But due to the initial drop in infection figures at the start of summer, many federal states decided to make exceptions, and there are big differences among them.

From September onward, up to 5,000 people will be allowed to gather in Berlin at open-air concerts. In Brandenburg, as in many other federal states, there will be an upper limit of 1,000, in Lower Saxony 500 and in Rhineland-Palatinate 350.

There are lots of experiments going on too, such as the “Restart19” project where scientists are analysing the risk of infection at concerts.

3. Smaller events and parties

There are also some concerns about the role of smaller events which more people are allowed to attend again in parts of Germany.

In Thuringia, publicly funded theatres and orchestras are allowed to perform again indoors.

In Bavaria, according to the state government, the following rule applies to events with “assigned, designated seats”: a total of 400 people are allowed at outdoor events and 200 inside. Otherwise there is an upper limit of 200 outside and 100 inside.

Recently, family parties and other social events have become cluster hotspots. There's also been large spontaneous raves without distance and face masks such as in the Berlin, which have caused headaches for authorities.

There were concerns over too many people gathering together at a boat demo in Berlin at the end of May. Photo: DPA

Germany's carnival season, which starts on November 11th, is also a big talking point. Can it go ahead in times of corona?

The government could look at introducing nationwide limits on social gatherings.

4. Masks and ventilation

Christian Democrat (CDU) party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer says she can envisage an increased obligation to wear face masks in Germany, such as in workplaces.

Currently they have to be worn while shopping and on public transport, as well in some schools.

Bavarian state premier Markus Söder says there should be a uniform line throughout Germany on the obligation to wear masks and on fines for those who flout rules.

The government will also discuss a federal-state program to use mobile filter systems in autumn and winter to reduce possible aerosol concentrations in Kitas, schools, community centres, businesses and restaurants.

They hope this will reduce the coronavirus spread when people have to spend more time indoors. But there are no guarantees it will be effective.

READ ALSO: Is Germany heading for a second lockdown amid rise in coronavirus cases?

5. Communication and coordination

After initial restraint, Chancellor Merkel made crisis management her top priority in March. For the first time ever she addressed the nation on TV, communicating how serious the situation was.

When Merkel told Germans to stick to lockdown rules, they obeyed.

This urgent and extreme action from Merkel and other high profile politicians as well as closely coordinated federal/state planning up until June, are regarded as success factors for the fact that so many people in Germany behaved in a disciplined way.

Angela Merkel during her TV address on March 18th. Photo: DPA

The number of cases, which is also the result of the increase in the number of tests, is still manageable, but the dynamics are a cause for concern as autumn approaches.

Now people are wondering if a plan with Merkel at the forefront needs to be put in place to get the population on board again.

“The federal and state governments must now finally pull together again and coordinate measures with each other,” said Katrin Göring-Eckardt, head of the Green parliamentary group.

This is the only way to secure the trust of the citizens and the support for the measures, said Göring-Eckardt.

There are also calls for an independent 'Pandemic Council', which would provide scientific support for the coronavirus measures.

Göring-Eckardt said there had been “no sensible cooperation since spring, when individual state premiers tried to outbid each other”.

“This has weakened the efforts to contain the virus and the preparation for a possible second wave,” she said.

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KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

The German Health Ministry has put together a seven-point-plan to combat Covid in autumn. Here's a look at the proposals which are being discussed this week.

KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, of the Social Democrats, is presenting Germany’s proposed Covid-19 autumn strategy this week to the states. In seven points, the plan outlines the federal government’s course of action in the expected autumn wave.

Three scenarios for autumn

According to the strategy paper, the government’s Covid Council of Experts sees three possible scenarios for the development of the pandemic in autumn.

– In the most favourable scenario, a less severe Covid variant than the currently widespread Omicron variant would become dominant in autumn. In this case, the Health Ministry says that stronger infection control measures would then no longer be necessary, or would only be needed to protect risk groups. 

– However, a moderately severe scenario is considered more likely, with a disease burden comparable to the current Omicron variants. In this outcome, infections and sick leave from work are expected to increase throughout the colder season. “Despite the moderate Covid-19 burden in critical care, work absences could again require area-wide transmission protection measures (masks and indoor distancing), as well as contact reduction measures on a regional basis,” the ministry’s strategy paper says.

READ ALSO: The Covid rules in place across German states

– In the worst-case scenario, “a new virus variant with a combination of increased immunity escape or transmissibility, and increased disease severity” would spread and become the dominant strain. In this case, the healthcare system would be severely burdened and protective measures such as mandatory masks and distance requirements could only be scaled back in spring 2023 at the earliest, the ministry says. 

But even in the moderately severe scenario, the Health Ministry estimates that without further measures Germany could see about 1,500 Covid deaths per week.

What’s the seven-point plan for Germany to get through autumn?

1. New vaccination campaign

The Health Ministry wants to purchase vaccines that are adapted to the Omicron variant from the manufacturers Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer, depending on the availability.

From September onwards, a fresh vaccination campaign is to be launched to promote the fourth vaccination (or second booster shot). The aim is to “close the vaccination gap and promote the fourth vaccination; especially in the older population group”.

A man receives his second booster vaccination against Covid in Springe. Lower Saxony in February.

A man receives his second booster vaccination against Covid in Springe. Lower Saxony in February. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Ole Spata

2. Testing strategy

People in Germany should have access to a PCR test after a positive rapid test. For symptomatic patients, a PCR test should also be possible in doctors’ surgeries without a prior rapid test, as is currently the case.

However, under the plans, there would no longer be free rapid tests – Bürgertests – for everyone. Instead, they would be restricted. Lauterbach wants to continue to offer free tests to people with Covid symptoms and for certain groups.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister wants to scrap free Covid tests for all

The proposals state that there should be preventive rapid tests in nursing homes and hospitals, and for children as well as for people coming into contact with lots of people, for instance before a large event. 

Furthermore, people who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons should also be entitled to free rapid tests. 

Lauterbach also wants to continue to make free rapid tests available to refugees fleeing war in Ukraine, as well as to people in Covid hotspots.

An easily accessible testing infrastructure, including in pharmacies, should be kept in place, says the paper. 

However, the federal government wants to pay the test centres less money per rapid antigen test and PCR test in future. “The total costs are to be reduced by about half,” the ministry writes in its strategy paper.

The amendment of the test regulation is to be completed by the end of June, the Health Ministry states. Free rapid tests are available in Germany until the end of this month.

A sign for a Covid test centre in Hamburg.

A sign for a Covid test centre in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christian Charisius

3. Optimisation of treatment

The German government’s Health Ministry wants to promote more treatment options for Covid.

“Since mortality can be significantly reduced by adequate and timely treatment, a treatment strategy (including for oral antiviral pill Paxlovid) is essential,” the ministry said, adding that effective drugs are not being used enough at the moment. The expert council has been asked to develop an appropriate treatment concept.

4. Protection of vulnerable groups

The Health Ministry considers a comprehensive care and safety concept for nursing facilities and care services essential in preparation for the expected autumn wave.

Lauterbach wants to see that all care facilities establish a ‘hygiene officer’, as is already the case in hospitals. For early treatment with medication, the appointment of a specialised care coordinator should also be put in place.

The aim is to keep nursing homes open for visits from members of the public. However, visiting and hygiene rules need to be established, says the paper. In this context, “the three effective protective measures ‘vaccination, testing, masks’ for staff, residents and visitors are to be enforced”.

5. Daily data

Lauterbach wants to order all hospitals to report the data that is necessary for pandemic management via the German Electronic Reporting and Information System for Infection Prevention (DEMIS) on a daily basis.

The reports should include intensive care capacity, the number of Covid patients in regular wards and intensive care units, and the numbers of free beds. According to Lauterbach’s plans, health care facilities that don’t comply with these reports would be sanctioned.

6. Protection plan for children and youths

The aim is to keep schools and nurseries open throughout autumn and winter. 

“Daycare centres and schools must remain open,” the strategy paper states. But in order to protect children and young people, a nationwide recommendation is to be developed by health and education ministers. Meanwhile, youngsters should also be a particular focus in the vaccination campaign.

An FFP2 mask hangs on a coat hanger at a school in Stuttgart.

An FFP2 mask hangs on a coat hanger at a school in Stuttgart. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

7. Changes to the Infection Protection Act

Germany’s Covid infection protection laws allow for rules such as mandatory masks. However, the law expires on September 23rd, and states have been pushing for the government to extend and strengthen it in case they need to put in place tougher measures, like contact restrictions.

READ ALSO: German states seek powers to enforce tougher Covid rules in autumn

According to the paper, the law is to be “further developed in good time before 23rd September 2022”. The Health Ministry said the findings of the expert council’s statement would be taken into account, as well as those of the expert commission evaluating the previous Covid protection measures, by the end of June.

However, a decision on exactly which measures the Infection Protection Act will contain after this date is to be made only after the evaluation reports have been presented on June 30th.