Should Germany bring in drastic travel restrictions in fight against Covid variants?

Should Germany introduce even more travel restrictions? That's the question as the country considers whether air travel should be cut to "almost zero" to deal with new Covid variants.

Should Germany bring in drastic travel restrictions in fight against Covid variants?
People queuing in Hamburg airport before Christmas. Photo: DPA

What's the latest?

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer on Tuesday said the more contagious coronavirus variants force the country to consider further wide-ranging measures, especially when it comes to travel.

“That includes significantly stricter border checks, especially at the borders of high-risk areas, but also reducing air travel to Germany to almost zero, as Israel is currently doing,” he said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly backs the idea. She is said to have told lawmakers from her conservative CDU/CSU bloc that citizens had a right to expect the government would take “certain precautions at border”, participants at the meeting told AFP.

“Everyone understands that now is not the time to travel,” she was quoted as saying.

READ ALSO: Germany considers cutting international air travel 'to almost zero'

What might that look like?

German authorities are already strongly urging people to avoid travel, within the country and abroad. There are also new stricter testing and quarantine rules. 

But if restrictions are made even tougher, it could mean almost all foreign flights are grounded.

Israel this week introduced an almost complete ban on air travel. The government there banned inbound and outbound flights by foreign airlines to slow the spread of Covid-19 strains.

The ban is initially in place until January 31st. Flights leaving the country are only approved in rare instances. Firefighting planes, emergency medical flights, and cargo aircraft are not affected by the policy. Meanwhile, domestic airlines in the country also face some new restrictions.

READ ALSO: These are Germany's latest rules on foreign travel to deal with Covid variants

What's the reaction?

As you can imagine, it's mixed.

High profile German scientist Christian Drosten said drastic measures to cut tourist travel would be sensible “from a scientific point of view”.

Drosten said that in view of the declining daily coronavirus numbers in Germany, “of course you have to pay attention to what comes from outside”.

The more the spread of Covid-19 is slowed within Germany, “the more important it becomes” to think about “what is brought in from outside”, the head of virology at Berlin's Charité hospital told broadcaster ARD in reference to the concern about virus mutants.

At the same time, the virologist, who advises the German government, advised caution in the debate about possible loosening of the current restrictions.

“At some point, we will have vaccinated so many people that the virus will no longer spread on its own,” he said.

The only question, he added, is how long that will take, and it doesn't look like this will happen any time soon. If the measures are simply stopped now, “then we will certainly see the virus multiplying again quite strongly”, he warned.

The current lockdown measures are in place until February 14th.

READ ALSO: Is it too early for Germany to think about a shutdown exit plan?

Meanwhile, pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) vice-chairman Wolfgang Kubicki warned the government against drastically restricting travel in the pandemic.

“No flight or travel bans will help in the current situation, especially since everyone has to go through tests anyway,” said Kubicki. He said vaccinating the population at a faster pace was the key. 

 “That is the most reliable and only way out of this pandemic,” he said.

Industries affected have also hit back.

The German Travel Association (DRV) said tourist travel had already come to an almost complete standstill due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, while the business travel sector is also down.

“The federal government should also take note of this,” the association said. “It should therefore not now concentrate on further restricting our already severely limited freedom to travel.”

Germany on Wednesday reported 13,202 new Covid-19 infections within 24 hours and 982 deaths.

Last Wednesday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) recorded 15,974 new infections and 1,148 new deaths within 24 hours.

The number of new infections reported within seven days per 100,000 inhabitants (7-day incidence) was 101.0 on Wednesday morning, according to the RKI. A record high of 197.6 was reached on December 22nd 2020. The number fluctuated thereafter and has been falling for several days.

Germany wants to get this number down to 50.

Will events take place this summer?

Meanwhile, there is still uncertainty over events happening this year.

Eventimpresents and Live Nation, the organisers of “Rock am Ring” (Nürburgring) and “Rock im Park” in Nuremberg, say that they will have to wait for concrete developments.

After last year's cancellation due to coronavirus, the twin festivals were scheduled to take place on the second weekend in June 2021.

“There are still a lot of question marks,” Stephan Thanscheidt from organiser FKP Scorpio said.

“We have to wait and see how the infection figures and the availability of the vaccines develop.”

“There is a lot of uncertainty in the industry at the moment,” said the president of the Federal Association of the Concert and Event Industry, Jens Michow.

“For the summer festivals, we will need decisions by mid-March at the latest on what form they can take because they need a minimum time to prepare.”


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EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

Due to high Covid infection numbers throughout the summer, it’s now possible to get a sick note from a doctor over the phone again for some illnesses. Here’s what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

What’s happened?

In spring 2020, German authorities changed the law so that people with a mild upper respiratory tract illness, such as the common cold, were able to get an incapacity to work certificate or AU-Bescheinigung by simply calling and speaking to their GP.

The rule was extended several times and finally reversed on June 1st this year due to falling infection figures. Since then people have had to go back to the practice – or do a video call if the doctor’s office has that system in place – to get a sick note.

Now, due to a decision by the Joint Federal Committee, the regulation has been reintroduced and patients can call their GP again for a sick note.

Can I get a sick note over the phone for any illness?

No. As before, the regulation only applies to patients suffering from a mild upper respiratory tract illness. Though Covid has not explicitly been named in the announcement, it seems that it is intended to be covered by the regulation.

If the doctor is convinced that the patient is unfit for work after a telephone consultation, then they can issue a sick note for up to seven days.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The changes around doctor’s notes in Germany you should know

If the symptoms persist after seven days, the certificate can be extended once more for another week.

Why now?

According to the Chairman of the G-BA, Josef Hecken, the regulation has been introduced now as a response to rising Covid numbers and in anticipation of the cold and flu season in the coming months: “We want to avoid full waiting rooms in doctors’ offices and the emergence of new infection chains,” he said.

The telephone sick leave rule is a simple, proven and uniform nationwide solution for that, he said. The rule is also necessary because video consultation hours are not yet available everywhere.

What else should I know?

The health insurer DAK is calling for telephone sick leave in the case of light respiratory diseases to be made possible on a permanent basis in Germany. DAK’s CEO Andreas Storm said that this should “not always be up for debate, because it has proven itself.” 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about making a doctor’s appointment in Germany

The social association VdK also welcomed the reintroduction of the rule. The VdK’s President Verena Bentele said that the regulation would help to protect high-risk groups in particular from potential infections.

What are the rules to know about sick notes in Germany?

Germany has a strict system in place. If you are sick, you need to give your employer a Krankmeldung (notification of sickness) before the start of work on the first day (of your illness).

However, you also need to hand in a Krankschreibung (doctor’s note) on the fourth day of your illness. Some employments contracts, however, require you to submit a sick not earlier than the fourth day so check with your boss or HR on that point.