When Covid-19 first struck Europe earlier this year, Germany's federal system was credited with taking early and targeted measures that helped contain the virus better than many other countries.
But as the second wave gathers momentum in Europe's biggest economy, cracks in the federal system are starting to show.
With different states implementing different travel restrictions, quarantine rules and test strategies, a confusing patchwork of regulations is leading to what the weekly Focus magazine has described as “corona chaos”.
The leaders of Germany's federal states have met regularly with Chancellor Angela Merkel to agree rules and regulations, but ultimately each state has the right to decide whether to impose them or not.
One measure that has really left Germans scratching their heads is a travel ban agreed last week that theoretically prevents people from risk areas within Germany from booking overnight accommodation in another state.
But five of Germany's states have refused to comply with the ban, while others have tweaked it to suit their own needs.
Someone living in the capital Berlin, considered a risk zone, can travel to surrounding state Brandenburg for a day trip or to go shopping, but cannot stay overnight.
If they want to travel north to Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, they must produce a negative test and undergo 14 days of quarantine — but if they want to travel further to Bremen, there are no such restrictions.
In a fraught meeting with Merkel on Wednesday, many of the state premiers demanded that the ban be overturned — but all they got was a promise that it will be reviewed after the autumn holidays on November 8th.
'None of this makes sense'
Merkel said she was “not entirely satisfied” with that decision and admitted that implementing the ban is “indeed not easy”.
“That is why, during the course of the autumn holidays, we will by and large stick to the existing rules — there must be some predictability for people,” she said, calling on the public to urgently avoid unnecessary travel.
A hotel in Cologne, currently listed as one of Germany's coronavirus hotspots. Photo: DPA
Critics of the travel rules include Berlin mayor Michael Müller, who branded them nonsensical in an interview with the ZDF broadcaster.
“We have hundreds of thousands of commuters every day, they meet in shops, on local transport, at work — and then a Berliner is not allowed to stay overnight in the Spreewald (forest) for two days. None of this makes sense.”
Armin Laschet, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, acknowledged ahead of the Wednesday meeting that things were getting increasingly confusing.
“People have the right to clear, binding rules that everyone can understand,” he told the Bild daily.
“If the rules are generally understandable, they will also find broad acceptance among the population,” he said. “If rules cause confusion, acceptance suffers.”
Reams of exceptions
The rules are equally baffling when it comes to foreign travel. The government on Wednesday agreed guidelines on testing and quarantine for people returning to Germany from international risk zones.
From November 8th, anyone returning from a risk area must in principle enter a 10-day quarantine period.
But there are reams of exceptions to this rule, including for commuters, people passing through a risk country for less than 24 hours, and even people visiting family if they stay less than three days.
Travellers can also release themselves from the 10-day quarantine if they are able to produce a negative test result not older than 48 hours carried out before they travel, or if they get tested after they return.
But even with a negative test, the minimum quarantine period will still be five days.
And if that wasn't complicated enough, it is once again up to the individual states to implement these rules as they see fit.
The German Tourism Federation (DTV) has called for a more unified approach as soon as possible to prevent travel disappointment and needless pressure on the economy.
“The chaos at the beginning of the autumn holidays shows once again that co-ordinated action between the states and the federal government is more necessary than ever,” it said in a statement.
By Femke Colbourne