When might Germany ease travel rules for countries with the Delta variant of Covid-19?
German politicians have been hinting that the country will soon downgrade the risk status of countries affected by the Covid Delta variant. When could this happen?
We have a new update to this developing story here: Germany lifts ban on travellers from Covid variant-hit countries UK, Portugal and India
Last week Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested that Germany would soon relax travel rules on people arriving from the UK - which is currently classed as a 'virus variant area of concern' due to the spread of the Delta variant there.
After a meeting with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday, Merkel said that Germany could soon reclassify the UK as a ‘high incidence’ area, meaning fully-jabbed arrivals from the UK would no longer have to quarantine.
"We think that in the foreseeable future those who have received double jabs will then according to our classification… be able to travel again without going into quarantine,” she said.
The previous day her Health Minister Jens Spahn also spoke out about relaxing the travel restrictions on countries where the Delta variant is widespread.
What are the rules currently?
There are entry bans on arrivals from countries classed as 'virus variant areas of concern' by Germany.
Those who are allowed to come to Germany - such as residents or citizens - still have to provide proof of a negative test before entering Germany even if they are vaccinated, and they must quarantine for 14 days.
There are about 16 'virus variant areas of concern' currently, including the UK, Portugal, Russia, India, South Africa and Brazil.
So what would change?
Germany has three risk categories - virus variant, high incidence and basic risk area.
As we mentioned above, people who are fully vaccinated coming from 'high incidence' areas do not have to quarantine. They can also show their proof of vaccination before boarding a flight to Germany instead of a negative Covid test.
People coming from 'high incidence' areas who aren't vaccinated can still come to the country but they have to provide a negative Covid test before departure, and quarantine for 10 days on arrival with the option to end it after five days with a negative Covid test.
The entry ban is also lifted when a country is removed from the 'virus variant' list, opening Germany up to tourists from the region in question.
Okay, so when could this happen?
Politicians in Germany say the risk status could be downgraded when the Delta variant is the dominant strain in Germany. According to Spahn, Germany expects the Delta variant to account for up to 70 to 80 percent of infections sometime this month.
Merkel also pointed out after her meeting with Boris Johnson that the Delta variant is “increasing very rapidly” in Germany.
As the World in Data graph below shows, cases have increased dramatically in the UK since the end of May.
The latest official report from the Robert Koch Institute released last week estimates that the Delta variant accounts for 37 percent of new Covid cases in Germany, up from 17 percent the previous week.
But the real figure is thought to be even higher due to the time lag involved in whole-genome sequencing analysis.
RKI experts said last week they believe it already accounts for at least half of new Covid infections in Germany.
The Delta variant is likely already dominant in certain areas, perhaps even across Germany, said the Frankfurt virologist Sandra Ciesek on Tuesday in the podcast Coronavirus Update.
That means it is rapidly replacing the Alpha variant - which was first detected in the UK - as the dominant strain nationwide.
Experts in Germany also want to make sure that vaccines are found to work well against the Delta variant.
Given the increasing spread of Delta and research showing that full vaccination protects well against it, “we will look at the situation in the next few days”, Spahn said last week.
“If both of these things are confirmed, we will then be able to treat Portugal and the United Kingdom as high-incidence areas”, rather than variant countries, he said.
A couple walk through a park in Lisbon, Portugal. Germany put Portugal on its list of virus variant areas on June 29th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Armando Franca
We asked the Health Ministry when the travel rules would be eased, but they could not give us an exact date.
A spokesman from the Health Ministry told The Local: "Virus variant areas are special risk areas in which a virus variant (mutation) of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has become widespread, which is not also widespread in Germany and which can be assumed to pose a special risk.
"In this respect, countries can also be classified differently if it turns out that the predominant virus there is also already predominant in Germany.
"This is decided jointly by the Federal Ministry of Health, the Federal Ministry of the Interior and the Federal Foreign Office at the expert level."
The German government usually announces changes to the risk classification of countries on Fridays, and the changes come into force the following Tuesday.
That being said, it looks likely that Germany will reclassify some - or all - Delta variant countries sometime in July.
Would this apply to other countries where the Delta variant is spreading?
The spotlight has been on the UK and Portugal, likely because they are closest to Germany. But the Delta variant is also the dominant strain in, for example, Russia and India, the country where it was first detected.
So does this mean all countries that are struggling with the Delta variant would be downgraded to a 'high incidence' area?
That may happen - but keep in mind that the German government and experts also take into account several different factors, including the vaccination rate and other restrictions, when deciding the risk classification of countries.
Aren't people in Germany worried about the Delta variant pushing up cases?
Yes - and the race to vaccinate before the Delta variant manages to make its presence even more felt is on.
Merkel on Monday told her party leadership that the country needed to vaccinate 80 percent of the population to provide enough protection.
In order to combat the Delta variant, however, the Robert Koch Institute wants to target an even higher proportion of the population: 85 percent of people aged 12-59, and 90 percent of people aged 60 and over.
"If this vaccination quota is reached in time, a pronounced fourth wave in the coming autumn and winter seems unlikely," the public health institute said in a paper released on Monday.
"The results [of our study] show that under the assumptions made, in particular an increasing dominance of the Delta variant, the vaccination campaign should be continued with high intensity."
On Sunday - for the first time in weeks - Germany’s 7-day incidence of new coronavirus infections increased compared to the previous day.
The RKI reported a slight increase to 5.0 infections per 100,000 inhabitants, up from 4.9 the day before.
On Monday the incidence remained at 5.0. Experts will be watching the incidence rate closely to see if it’s a blip – or a sign of a new trend of rising cases.
Is there anything else at play here?
Yes, politics could be a factor. For instance, arrivals from Germany to the UK have to quarantine for 10 days with excessive testing costs, even if they are fully vaccinated, at least at the moment. That's because Germany is still on the UK's 'amber' list - even though the infection rate in Germany is extremely low right now.
So Germany may be expecting the UK to reciprocate eased travel for the fully jabbed.
On Friday UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that progress was being made on quarantine-free travel but added that the tough restrictions that the UK has on people coming from Germany are “quite right”.
Germany has also received disapproving looks from the EU after coming down hard on Portugal - a fellow member of the bloc, and a favourite holiday destination of Germans.
Portugal was added to the Robert Koch Institute's list of risk areas as a 'virus variant' area on June 29th, after it emerged that the Delta variant was spreading rapidly in the country.