VIDEO: How the German city of Tübingen is betting on Covid-19 tests to reopen public life

Germany may be battling a third wave of the pandemic but life feels almost normal in the city of Tübingen, where anyone with a negative Covid test can enjoy a day of shopping, culture or outdoor dining.

VIDEO: How the German city of Tübingen is betting on Covid-19 tests to reopen public life
Friends enjoy the good weather at an open beer garden in Tübingen on March 28th. Photo: DPA

As debate rages nationwide about whether tougher measures are needed to slow surging infections, the historic university city near Stuttgart has chosen a different tack by offering free coronavirus testing centres that hand out “day passes” to those whose results come back negative.

The passes then allow access to what is currently one of Germany’s most vibrant city centres.

“Customers’ eyes light up when they come in, it’s finally a bit of normality again,” said Sandra Pauli, who was allowed to reopen her home decor shop some two weeks ago. “Everyone is very happy.”


READ ALSO: Is Germany heading for a tougher Covid lockdown?

The usual rules on mask wearing and physical distancing still apply, said Pauli, who believes the rapid testing scheme “is the only way to live with the coronavirus” while keeping high street stores afloat and welcoming people back into theatres and museums.

The rest of Germany is closely watching the Tübingen model, and a string of cities and towns are planning similar experiments.

Not without controversy

The central city of Weimar has already opened shops and museums to those carrying a negative test.

The small state of Saarland is going even further and wants to end its shutdown on April 6th, using a combination of rapid antigen tests and hygiene precautions to open up cinemas, gyms and outdoor restaurants.

But the trend is not without controversy at a time when scientists are warning that new, more contagious virus variants could see Germany’s caseload explode in the coming weeks.

Among the loudest critics is Chancellor Angela Merkel, who in a rare live television interview on Sunday urged regional leaders to stick to agreed Covid curbs.

“I don’t know that testing and shopping is the right response to what is happening right now,” the veteran leader said, noting that even in Tùbingen the rate of infection was climbing despite the thousands of tests.

READ ALSO: Why one German town is lifting its lockdown despite third coronavirus wave

Merkel and the premiers of Germany’s 16 federal states agreed in early March to pull the “emergency brake” and impose renewed restrictions if a region hit more than 100 new infections per 100,000 people over a seven-day period – as in currently the case across most of the country.

But many regional leaders have proved reluctant to revert to harsher shutdowns.

A woman getting a rapid test in Tübingen in March. Photo DPA

Limits on tourists

Outside Tübingen’s picturesque city hall, on a square lined by colourful half-timbered buildings, people have been queuing since the early morning to have their nostrils swabbed at one of several testing sites in the city.

Almost 50,000 tests have been carried out over a two-week period, according to doctor Lisa Federle, one of the driving forces behind the project, which is being monitored by the University of Tuebingen.

“We have enough tests,” said Federle, adding that “we have to do something because people no longer accept” the restrictions.
“I think it’s significantly safer to meet outside after you’ve been tested, than meeting people in your home,” she told AFP.

Tübingen mayor Boris Palmer, of the left-leaning Green party, said the project had given hope to business owners who were feeling increasingly desperate.

Although the district’s incidence rate has climbed from 41 on March 15th to 98 on Monday, he said the increase “was not any faster than elsewhere in the country”.

But the city of 90,000 residents risks becoming a victim of its own success, with the intense media attention drawing in a flurry of daytrippers from across Germany.

READ ALSO: One year on: The charts and maps that explain the state of the pandemic in Germany

The influx has prompted local authorities to limit the number of tourists allowed to benefit from the day-pass scheme.

Rene, 36, and his girlfriend drove 100 kilometres (60 miles) to celebrate his birthday in Tübingen.

“We’re going for a nice meal now,” he said. “We just wanted to do something special.”

The scheme is set to run until April 18th, and Federle thinks it’s already a success.

“People can see that we’re not just closing down, that we’re also trying to find another way.”

By Yann Schreiber

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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.