German Health Minister suggests gradual end to compulsory face masks

Germany could soon begin easing rules on mandatory mask-wearing due to a sharp drop in Covid-19 infections, Health Minister Jens Spahn said Monday.

German Health Minister suggests gradual end to compulsory face masks
Health Minister Jens Spahn wearing a mask in the Bundestag on June 11th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

For more than a year, the wearing of masks has been mandatory in certain places like in shops and on public transport across Germany in a bid to prevent coronavirus infections.

Busy streets or buses with people wearing cloth, surgical and – from January this year – FFP2 masks, have been a common sight all over the country.  But now Covid-19 infection rates are dropping dramatically and the point of mouth and nose protection is being questioned.

On Monday, federal Health Minister Spahn, of the CDU, said he believed a gradual end of the mask obligation was in sight due to the Covid situation.

“With the falling incidences, we should proceed in stages: as a first step, the mask obligation can be dropped outside in principle,” Spahn told the newspapers of the Funke Mediengruppe.

 “In regions with very low numbers and a high vaccination rate, the requirement could gradually be dropped indoors,” he added.

However, Spahn said people should always wear a mask “if in doubt” – especially “when traveling and meeting indoors,” he added. “There is more safety only if everyone present is either vaccinated or regularly tested.”

READ ALSO: German justice minister tells states to consider abolishing mask wearing

Health offices in Germany reported 549 new infections to the RKI on Monday, and 10 deaths in the past 24 hours. The 7-day incidence stood at just 16.6 cases per 100,000 people.

Spahn has been under fire recently over face masks after his Health Ministry was accused of planning to distribute masks considered to be sub-standard and not fully protective against Covid-19 to socially and physically vulnerable people.

He has been facing calls to resign – and was subject of a debate in the Bundestag last week where he was accused of putting his ambitions ahead of safety concerns. 

Spahn has denied the accusations, saying that the masks were properly inspected by his ministry.

German politicians divided on mask wearing

The widespread lifting of the mask requirement in Denmark from this Monday has also fuelled debate in Germany.

Calls for a complete end to wearing masks in Germany came from the pro-business Free Democrats and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). These parties have said throughout the pandemic that Germany’s Covid rules have been too restrictive to people’s freedoms. 

However, SPD health expert Karl Lauterbach and CSU state group leader Alexander Dobrindt said they think ending obligatory masks should only be possible outdoors – not indoors.

At the weekend, Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht (SPD) called on states to clarify whether and where a mask requirement was still proportionate given the low figures in Germany. 

“This also applies to schools, because schoolchildren are particularly affected by the mask-wearing requirement,” she said. 

READ ALSO: How face masks have helped slow down the spread of coronavirus in Germany

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Saxony becomes first German state to get rid of compulsory masks in shops

People living in Saxony won't have to wear a mask in shops and supermarkets from Friday after the state ruled the restriction could be lifted in low Covid areas.

Saxony becomes first German state to get rid of compulsory masks in shops
Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

However, masks will still have to be worn on public transport as well as in medical facilities and at services like the hairdresser, state Health Minister Petra Köpping said after a cabinet meeting in Dresden on Tuesday. 

The state decided that masks will not be needed in areas where the Covid incidence is below 10 infections per 100,000 residents in seven days. 

All districts and cities in the eastern state are currently below the threshold of 10, meaning the relaxation will apply everywhere. 

The number of cases per 100,000 people within seven days in Saxony stood at 2.2 on Tuesday. Around 122 Covid-19 patients are currently being cared for in Saxon hospitals, with 35 patients in intensive care units.

Although mask rules are being relaxed in many parts of Germany – particularly in outdoor areas – Saxony has become the first state to drop the requirement completely in retailers. 

READ ALSO: The new rules on masks in Germany

Köpping said that it was down to Saxony’s low incidence rates, but said this was not something that could be taken for granted. She appealed to the public to remain cautious.

The new regulation applies from Friday until July 28th initially, but may be extended. 

Like in many other countries, compulsory masks are a contentious issue in Germany, with politicians debating whether they will still be needed when everyone has been offered a vaccine.

READ ALSO: Masks ‘will be needed’ indoors in autumn, says German Health Minister

Negative test after vacation or home office

Saxony is also bringing in a new rule on tests for unvaccinated people.

Anyone who has been on holiday for more than five days must present a negative test when they return to work. This also applies to employees who have been working from home. Vaccinated people and those who’ve recovered from Covid are not included.

This rule comes into force on July 26th.

Vaccination centres without appointments

The state also wants to make it easier for people to get jabbed. So from Wednesday, residents do not need an appointment for a vaccine at any time of day.

“You can just go to the vaccination centre and be vaccinated,” said Köpping. So far, residents could be vaccinated from 2pm in centres without an appointment.

Saxony is the only federal state that had not yet reached the 50 percent quota for first doses. According to the Robert Koch Institute, 49.9 percent of people in Saxony have received at least the first vaccination, 40 percent are fully vaccinated.

In Bremen, 67.8 percent of residents have been given one jab. Saarland has the highest vaccination rate (47.2 percent) for the fully jabbed, while Brandenburg is trailing behind with 39.2 percent of residents being fully vaccinated.