EXPLAINED: How Germany will change Covid-19 strategy and ramp up testing

Germany is changing its Covid-19 testing strategy again, with a focus on increased rapid antigen tests and more availability of PCR tests. Here's what we know so far.

EXPLAINED: How Germany will change Covid-19 strategy and ramp up testing
A woman with a negative antigen test. Photo: DPA

 What's the latest?

On Tuesday Health Minister Jens Spahn announced plans for free rapid coronavirus tests to be available to everyone in Germany.

This is part of changes to the National Testing Strategy aimed at trying to help the country return to some kind of normality in the pandemic, and keep numbers down after it emerges from shutdown.

The current lockdown measures were last week extended to March 7th, but some schools are opening up this month.

READ ALSO: Germany plans free coronavirus rapid tests for all residents

What's happening with rapid Covid tests?

Germany is to offer free Covid-19 rapid antigen tests to everyone in the country from next month to tackle the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic.

“From March 1st, all citizens will be able to be tested free of charge by trained personnel” with the antigen tests, Health Minister Jens Spahn said in a tweet.

The country is also planning a roll out of self-administered rapid tests after they are approved by national drug regulator BfArM. This is expected to happen in early March.

An increased availability of antigen tests, and tests that can be self-administered, are expected to play an important role as Germany starts to reopen schools and other facilities after months of closure.

Aren't rapid tests used already?

Yes. The government has already expanded the use of rapid tests. They are now used regularly in old people's homes, clinics and – only after outbreaks – also in schools – but for the time being only by trained staff.

“These tests can contribute to a safe everyday life, especially in schools and daycare centres,” said Spahn.

Last week during a press conference in Berlin, Spahn also said companies, such as retailers, could use self-administered tests in future to help with reopening public life safely.

“Rapid antigen tests can make an important contribution to finding a way out of the lockdown,” said Frankfurt virologist Sandra Ciesek at the press conference.

Ciesek said a study carried out in Hesse last autumn, which saw 10,000 self-administered tests being given out to teachers before and after the holidays, worked “very well”.

A rapid test being carried out in Berlin. Photo: DPA

The tests are usually done with a saliva swab. Two strips indicate that someone is positive – one means a negative detection.

Ciesek also emphasised that these tests, like all, do not offer 100 percent certainty but can act as an additional safety measure to help break chains of infection.

READ ALSO: Germany plans to allow sale of Covid-19 home test kits

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) has been recommending that people get a PCR test for extra confirmation if they receive a positive antigen test result.

Can we currently pay to receive an antigen test?

Yes. Private testing centres have popped up across Germany offering rapid tests as well as PCR tests. Berlin's famous KitKat club even got a new lease of life after it turned into a rapid test centre.

People in German use them before and after travel, or before visiting family and friends at Christmas time, for example.

Test costs can vary, from around €50 to €100, but can be more depending on the provider.

It is unclear the impact that free rapid tests will have on these centres – and how testing will be documented in future.

Are other countries embracing rapid testing?

Yes. Neighbouring Austria, for example, has already moved to widespread rapid Covid-19 testing in a bid to keep numbers down after its lockdown

You need a negative test result for some services, such as to get a haircut or a tattoo. Tests are also free.
France also ramped up its testing strategy last year, offering easily accessible antigen and PCR tests, which are fully reimbursed to residents who are registered in the health system.

What's the difference between rapid and PCR tests?

Unlike PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests that must be analysed in a lab, antigen testing can be done from saliva with a result given on the spot within 30 minutes.

That makes it easier and faster to test large numbers of people, though antigen tests are less reliable in detecting Covid-19 in people who are not showing symptoms.

Is there anything else changing about the testing strategy?

Yes. Health Minister Spahn said last Friday that PCR testing requirements are changing again in Germany.

From this week, everyone in Germany who experiences any Covid-19 symptoms (such as a fever or cough) should be able to get a PCR test covered by health insurance from their doctor.

Spahn said laboratories have the capacity to process more tests again.

Germany changed its test strategy in November, scaling back on the number of Covid tests offered compared to the first part of the pandemic, in order for laboratories to cope during the winter season, and to avoid overloading doctors' surgeries.

Authorities said this was because so many people have colds and flu in winter with similar symptoms to coronavirus.

They instead urged people with cold symptoms to isolate, and aimed to only offer testing to those with strong Covid-19 symptoms, such as a loss of taste or smell, or people who had been in contact with an infected person.

If someone suspects they have Covid-19 they can ask their doctor for a test, which is covered by health insurance. But it is the doctor's decision on whether a test is offered.

Member comments

  1. “From March 1st, all citizens will be able to be tested free of charge by trained personnel” with the antigen tests, Health Minister Jens Spahn said in a tweet.

    So only applicable for citizens? Not including residents?
    Your other report/story on The Local stated ‘resident’…
    Somewhat confusing and misleading from your publication.

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For members


EXPLAINED: The new rules on getting a Covid test in Germany

Most people now have to pay to get an antigen test in Germany. Here's what you should know about the new rules.

EXPLAINED: The new rules on getting a Covid test in Germany

What’s happening? 

Until this point everyone in Germany was entitled to at least one free Covid-19 rapid test per week by trained staff. It included a test result certificate which could be delivered to the person by email or in paper. 

But the free-for-all offer has now been “suspended”, according to the Federal Ministry of Health.

The revised testing regulation with the new rules took effect on Thursday June 30th. 

READ ALSO: Germany starts charging for Covid tests 

Who will continue to get a free test?

The Health Ministry says the entitlement to so-called Bürgertests is intended to protect particularly vulnerable people.

These include people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons – like women in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Others to receive free access to tests include family carers and people with disabilities, as well as their carers.

Furthermore, household members of people who have Covid, children up to the age of five, and residents and visitors of nursing homes, institutions for people with disabilities and clinics do not have to pay for a rapid test.

A person gets a Covid test swab in Oldenburg.

A person gets a Covid test swab in Oldenburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

Visitors and people receiving treatment or residents in inpatient or outpatient hospital facilities can also get free tests, as well as people taking part in Covid clinical trials. 

People who need proof that they are negative after a Covid-19 infection, so they can go back to work for example, can still get tested for free.

Employees of nursing homes and hospitals should continue to take Covid rapid tests in their facilities, says the Health Ministry.

How do people prove they are entitled to a free test?

Anyone who wants to claim free testing must identify themselves to the testing agency and provide proof. For example, a birth certificate or passport (for children), and the maternity pass for pregnant women.

Those who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons must present an official medical certificate from their doctor. 

For those getting a test due to a household member being positive, they have to show the positive PCR test of their housemate and proof of matching residential address. 

Who has to pay €3 to get a test?

The €3 tests are intended for private use, including for visits to family celebrations, concerts or another “indoor event”, such as the theatre. 

This is aimed at helping prevent so-called superspreader events, where many people get Covid at once.

A €3 test should also be granted to anyone who gets a red Covid warning on their Corona Warn app, or who plans to meet someone – or people – over the age of 60 or people with a pre-existing illness or disability.

Do you need to provide proof for this?

Yes. The Health Ministry says: “This can be done, for example, by showing an admission ticket to an event, the Corona Warning app or, in the case of contact with high-risk patients, a self-disclosure form or a digital registration process.”

The person getting the test signs a document stating why they are getting the test. 

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said on Thursday that documenting why tests were taking place would help stop fraud as random checks can be carried out. 

What other documents are required?

As before, an official photo ID has to be presented, such as a passport.

Will this be a bit confusing in practice?

It does appear to be a little unclear on how things will work. Plus many people in Germany, and tourists, won’t know about the change in rules since it came about so quickly. 

There was also some confusion on the point of visits to elderly or people with previous illnesses. People who visit relatives in clinics or nursing homes can still get a test free of charge. However, the regulation also states that those who want to meet with over-60s or those with previous illnesses must pay an additional €3 for a test.

A spokesman from the Health Ministry said the difference is whether the meeting is in an institution (where the test is free) or if it’s a private meeting (where a €3 payment is due).

READ ALSO: Germany’s planned changes to Covid vaccination status 

Why is the test offer being restricted?

It was getting too expensive. According to Lauterbach, Bürgertests cost €1 billion per month. The government has reportedly spent more than €10.5 billion on free antigen tests during the pandemic, with suspected fraud of up to €1.5 billion.

The government is also reducing the amount that is given to the test centres per antigen test – from the current €11.50 to €9.50.

A total of €6.50 from the federal government will be added to the €3 to reimburse centres.

Will any German states take over the €3 contribution payment for a test?

Lauterbach previously referred to the possibility that federal states could take over the €3 payment for residents, or groups of residents.

The states, however, quickly signalled that there were no plans to do so.

The €3 would not be replaced “in any of the states”, said Baden-Wuerttemberg’s health minister Manne Lucha (Greens) on Tuesday.

What happens if you get Covid symptoms?

People with Covid symptoms should contact their GP. Doctors in Germany can order a PCR test as part of medical treatment if Covid-19, which will be covered by the patient’s health insurance.