‘Corona chaos’ emerges as Germans baffled by conflicting virus rules

Germany has 16 states, each with their own set of rules amid the corona crisis. This is leading to confusion, especially among travellers and commuters.

'Corona chaos' emerges as Germans baffled by conflicting virus rules
A sign in the centre of Munich tells passersby about the requirement to wear a mask in the area. Photo: DPA

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.

READ ALSO: 'We weren't allowed to check in': Travellers in Germany report confusion over internal restrictions

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.

READ ALSO: State by state: What are Germany's current domestic quarantine rules and hotel bans?

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

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Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany.