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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Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Since the start of Germany’s Oktoberfest, the incidence of Covid infections in Munich has risen sharply. Though a connection with the festival can’t yet be proven, it seems likely.

Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Two weeks after the start of Oktoberfest, the Covid numbers in Munich have more than tripled.

On Sunday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported an incidence of 768.7 for the city of Munich, though updated figures for the end of the festival are not expected until later in the week. Usually, on weekends and public holidays, there is a delay in reports.

In the entire state of Bavaria, the incidence value on Sunday was 692.5.

According to Munich’s public health officer, Beatrix Zurek, bed occupancy in Munich hospitals has also increased. Two weeks ago, 200 beds in Munich were occupied by Covid patients, whereas there are now around 350.

Though a relationship between the sharp rise in infections with Oktoberfest, which ended on Monday, can’t be proven at the moment, it seems very likely, according to experts. A significant increase in Covid incidences has also been shown at other public festivals – about one and a half weeks after the start. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s famed Oktoberfest opens after two-year pandemic hiatus

After a two-year break due to the pandemic, around 5.7 million visitors came to this year’s Wiesn according to the festival management – around 600,000 fewer than at the last Oktoberfest before the pandemic in 2019, when there were 6.3 million.

Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) took to Twitter to comment on the rise in incidence in Munich during the Oktoberfest. “This would not have been necessary if self-tests had been taken before admission,” he said.

“Compared to the price of a measure of beer, €2-3 (for tests) wouldn’t have mattered,” he said.

Even before the start of the Wiesn, he had spoken out in favour of people taking voluntary self-tests. Lauterbach stressed that now is the time for special measures against Covid.

“The development shows what will happen if the states wait too long with the mask obligation in indoor areas,” he added.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

In neighbouring counties, where many Oktoberfest visitors came from, the number of Covid cases has also risen noticeably.  Beatrix Zurek said that it is unclear, however, how much of a role Oktoberfest played in these figures, as people are currently much more active socially overall, with concerts and other events also taking place throughout the state.

Christoph Spinner, an infections specialist at Munich’s Klinikum, has urged people not to be alarmed by the rising numbers.

“We had expected rising incidences here. We knew that there could be a doubling, tripling, even quadrupling,” he said.

He said that this is no cause for concern, as many people have been vaccinated or have also recovered from previous Covid infections, so any new infections are therefore usually mild.

The virologist advises people over 60 or with pre-existing conditions to get a second booster vaccination, but otherwise said people shouldn’t be alarmed by the rising incidences.