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OPINION & ANALYSIS

‘Extremely strict’: What it’s like to travel from the UK to Germany right now

Germany put in tough entry restrictions for UK arrivals back in May when the Delta variant began to push up the number of cases there, with exceptions for residents and citizens. Here's what it's like to travel between the two countries.

'Extremely strict': What it's like to travel from the UK to Germany right now
A sign for a Covid test centre in Berlin airport. Photo:picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jens Kalaene

After not seeing my family in about 18 months, I booked a flight to Scotland for early June when the Covid situation looked like it would be much improved in both the UK and Germany. 

As my family and I were fully vaccinated, it felt like the best time to visit, spend time with everyone and sort out some admin I needed to do in my home country. 

I knew there were risks – and I had to pay a lot for testing and quarantine for 10 days when arriving in Scotland – but for my own reasons it was the right time to head back. 

But as we’ve come to expect during this pandemic, nothing stays the same for long. Unfortunately the Delta variant, which was first discovered in India, began to spread in the UK in May.

And on May 21st, Germany announced it was making the UK a ‘virus variant area of concern’ – effectively banning travel –just two weeks after it had declared the UK ‘risk free’.

It plunged people’s plans into uncertainty. Those who were already in the UK worried that they wouldn’t be able to return to Germany, or stressed out over the two-week quarantine period – which is how long you have to self-isolate when returning from a ‘virus variant area of concern’ under German rules. 

We’d also been in this situation before. Germany banned travel from the UK in December just before Christmas when the Alpha variant was running rampant, leaving people – including German citizens and Brits who lived in Germany, controversially, – stranded on the border or refused entry onto flights.

READ ALSO: ‘Utter nightmare’: Brits barred from flights home to Germany amid travel chaos

Quickly, though, exceptions were put in place to allow certain groups of people – such as residents and citizens and their close family – to be able to return to Germany even if there was a general entry ban. 

As the situation can change quickly, I decided to take the risk and still travel to the UK in early June, hoping that the situation might look better later on in the month. 

The UK has a high vaccination rate – and Germany’s jabs were picking up – so for me it felt different and safer to travel in June than, for example, at Christmas when we were all much more exposed to the virus. 

Unfortunately, the restricted entry was still in place when I travelled back to Germany – although it could be lifted soon, as we learned from Health Minister Jens Spahn on Thursday. 

READ ALSO:

Expensive tests

Germany relaxed travel rules, particularly for vaccinated people and those who’ve recovered from Covid, in May. 

For instance, anyone travelling by air into Germany has to show a negative Covid test before boarding the flight. But if you’re vaccinated or have recovered from Covid you can show evidence of that instead. 

In general, different rules are required for arrivals from countries around the world depending on their risk status, although quarantine restrictions were eased recently – particularly for fully vaccinated people.

However, the rules are still tough when coming from a virus variant area, such as the UK, India and Brazil, and – most recently – Portugal and Russia. 

Even if you’re fully vaccinated, you have to show a negative PCR test (taken within 72 hours before you’re due to land in Germany) or a rapid antigen test (taken within 24 hours before landing).

A flight leaving London Heathrow. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/PA Wire | Steve Parsons

The issue in the UK is that there are not many places to get tested for Covid easily, especially in smaller cities and rural areas. 

And you’ll have to pay a lot for a test. Some places charge up to £150 for a PCR test. It’s a far cry from Germany’s testing network that allows for free antigen tests and much cheaper PCR tests. 

This is, of course, on top of what you paid for the day two and day eight testing when arriving in the UK. 

What happens before travel to Germany?

Once you have your negative test, you have to register online and upload it to www.einreiseanmeldung.de.

Then you may be asked – depending on your carrier – to upload the documents before you check in online. I uploaded my negative test and the PDF of the German registration to the British Airways site on my booking page. It’s usually only after these are verified that you can check in. 

My flight down to London from Scotland wasn’t overly complicated although I was asked my reason for travelling to Germany. When I explained I was a German resident, I was told evidence of this would be checked before boarding.

It got intense when we began boarding for the flight to Berlin.

The staff put out a call asking people to get their documents ready. Passengers stood around with folders of paper and their phones at the ready. 

The airline staff checked people’s documents thoroughly, and anyone that didn’t have the right papers or an out-of-date test certificate was asked to stand aside. 

A family of three who said they were coming to Germany for a wedding were not allowed on the plane.

“Sorry, the rules have changed,” said the staff member turning the family of three away and back into the departure lounge. “Only residents and citizens are allowed.”

Other people, including a group of three women, and another group of three young men, were also refused entry onto the plane. 

A few people were told that they didn’t have the correct documents but if they filled in the online entry form they might be able to get on.

There were several heated discussions with desperate travellers at the boarding gate as others – including many native German speakers – boarded with no problems.

I don’t have my Brexit residence card yet but I’d taken my Anmeldung (address registration document) for travel. It was accepted and I was able to board the plane. 

‘The rules have changed’

Once on, the pilot said we would be late in departing because staff needed to remove luggage from the hold belonging to the people who didn’t get on the flight. 

One passenger, whose documents were scrutinised before boarding, was sitting comfortably with his seat belt on when an air steward came over and asked him to leave the plane. 

“I don’t get it,” he said in an American accent as he followed the steward down the aisle and had to get off the plane. 

Some passengers, who had come from the US and were transferring through London to Germany said they recommended avoiding the UK in future. 

“It’s more trouble than it’s worth,” said one man. 

Germany says in general travel bans from countries affected by variants also apply for transit, but check official advice from the German Foreign Office and your airline for more information. 

Back in Germany I’ve had to complete a 14-day quarantine with no option of ending it earlier. My local health office contacted me by email on the first day of isolation offering a PCR test seven to 10 days into the isolation period. They also offered the option of entering into a hotel quarantine if I lived with a high risk person.

The rules are extremely strict and not to be taken lightly. But with the announcement from the Health Minister that Germany could downgrade the risk status of the UK soon. it will likely be a very different experience for others down the line.

Another thing to keep in mind is that flights are likely to be cancelled at the moment. My original flight home to Germany was cancelled, and I know people who’ve had to find other routes back to Germany because their flights were cut from the schedule. 

A British Airways spokesman told The Local: “Like other airlines, due to the current Coronavirus pandemic and global travel restrictions we are operating a reduced and dynamic schedule. 

“We advise customers to check the latest UK Government travel advice at gov.uk and their latest flight information at ba.com.”e

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Germany’s unfair school system entrenches inequality

Pupils in Germany are funnelled off into different schools at the age of 11, which map out whether they go down an academic or vocational route. But this model is unfair and disastrous for social mobility, says James Jackson.

OPINION: Germany's unfair school system entrenches inequality

This month, 11-year-olds in Germany will receive a letter which will influence their future more than perhaps anything else. The “letter of recommendation” from their teacher decides more than anything else whether the children go on to study academic subjects or more practical ones. 

Perhaps the biggest German success story in recent years, the BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, might not have happened due to the inequalities of opportunity in this system. Uğur Şahin, a scientific genius to whom the human race will be eternally grateful, wasn’t recommended to Gymnasium. His teacher didn’t recognise his obvious intelligence and his parents didn’t know how to argue against this. If it wasn’t due to the intervention of a German neighbour, it is quite possible the BioNTech vaccine wouldn’t have happened. 

When this story came out, a hashtag about being a good neighbour trended on German social media. But rather than being a good neighbour, wouldn’t an improvement be to get rid of an arbitrary system that can condemn bright children through oversight, luck, prejudice or malice? 

READ ALSO: What parents should know about German schools

‘Disastrous’ for social mobility

This idea of streaming children into different schools based on ability may sound meritocratic, similar to the grammar school system beloved by many conservatives. But the German school system is grammar schools on steroids, and it has had disastrous results for social mobility; Germany has some of the worst in the developed world, with only 15 percent of young people whose parents didn’t go to university end up graduating from one, four times less likely than those with parents who did. It’s not just about education: Germany is second to last in the OECD in how many people rise from the bottom 25 percent to the top 25 percent economically too. Reports make clear these discrepancies aren’t just about the streaming system – low uptake in early childhood education and below EU average education funding also play a role.

The school system differs slightly across each state but basically there are three types: Gymnasium, Hauptschule and Realschule. Gymnasium are the most academic and pupils go on to do Abitur, which is usually needed to get into university. Students can transfer from one to another, but by most accounts it isn’t easy. And while Gymnasiums and school streaming or tracking does exist in other countries, Germany has the strictest form of it. 

PODCAST: The big problem with the German school system and can you pass a citizenship test?

Rather than being based on an exam such as Britain’s 11+ model (which itself benefits parents with the means to hire private tutors or the time and education to help their children study) it is based arbitrarily on the opinion of an individual teacher, who parents often make efforts to impress. Yes, teachers in Germany are highly trained professionals, but all people have unconscious biases and some people have conscious ones. Blind studies show that children with non-German or working class names like Kevin receive worse marks for the same piece of schoolwork. 

It seems bizarre and unfair to make the decision at such an early age when children develop at different speeds – that’s if you need to make such a decision at all. Some of the school systems with the best results in the world such as Finland’s have a totally comprehensive system with no streaming at all. 

Due to reforms in recent decades, the letter of recommendation is only compulsory in three German federal states, this isn’t necessarily a huge improvement. A 2019 study “The Many (Subtle) Ways Parents Game the System” showed how parents with more social capital, themselves usually white German and better-off, can get their children into Gymnasium regardless of grades and a letter of recommendation. Is giving pushy parents even more opportunities necessarily an improvement?

Children in primary school in Germany.

Children in primary school in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

Supporters of the system say that not everyone is suited to academic study and we should allow for all kinds of different paths in life, and point to pretty decent income equality in the country. I agree, someone who gets technical qualifications being able to earn a decent living is something to be proud of in the German system, but why should that be determined by who your parents are? It doesn’t give working class people the opportunity to rise to the top – and changing careers in Germany is notoriously hard. 

As it stands, the system appears quasi-feudal to an outsider, with people passing their societal position onto their children especially in a system where academic titles carry so much prestige that politicians plagiarising PhDs is a scandal. And while most middle class Germans I’ve met are pretty honest that their country could do more to integrate immigrants, there can be a pretty prickly response if you bring up class differences, despite the plethora of Von’s and Zu’s in media, politics and industry. I received far more backlash online with this topic than any other, from education professionals with academic titles galore. It made me wonder, if a teacher is going to relentlessly savage a professional journalist for expressing a critical opinion, how will they treat a misbehaving student?

Education reforms are ‘controversial’

There have been attempts to introduce comprehensive schools or “Gesamtschulen” in various states, but they have hit major roadblocks from furious parents – one might argue they felt their privilege threatened. Education reforms are massively controversial in Germany generally. A striking proportion of Referendums and Citizen’s Initiatives across the country have been about repealing educational reforms, especially those which simplify the German language. No wonder approaching it is political suicide, mostly avoided even by progressive parties like the Left and the Greens. Educated people are a powerful constituency, with more money, representation and power. Meanwhile those disadvantaged are less likely to vote or even be able to vote. 

READ ALSO: What foreign parents really think about German schools

For a country that styles itself as the Land of “Dichter und Denker” (poets and thinkers) it’s no surprise that Germany takes education so seriously. Education also played an important role in the development of the country as the so-called Bildungsbürger (member of the educated classes) gained a liberalising influence in the mid 18th Century. But the results weren’t always stellar. The so-called PISA shock of 2008 was the first time that students across Europe were compared with each other, and Germany performed poorly. Though the average attainment has improved since then, it still isn’t as spectacular as many Gymnasium fans think, scoring about the same as the UK which has mostly comprehensive schools, while scoring desperately low for equity in social backgrounds. 

Education and what role the state should play in it is an emotive question. To me, it seems egregious that the state is funding a system that is shown to entrench social and educational inequality and segregate people based on what is more often than not their social class. The philosopher of science Stephen Jay Gould wrote “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” In Germany, he may have written that they were consigned to Hauptschule because of their name instead.

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