When (and why) Germany plans to scrap free Covid tests for all

Germany's Health Ministry has proposed ending free antigen rapid tests for all in a bid to convince people to get vaccinated. Here's what we know so far.

When (and why) Germany plans to scrap free Covid tests for all
 A sign for free Covid tests in Munich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

People in Germany need proof of a negative Covid-19 test for some activities across states, such as going to the gym, visiting a museum or dining indoors. 

But if you are fully vaccinated or have recovered from Covid within the last six months, you can show proof of that instead of a test. 

Now the free rapid test network – that was set up earlier this year to help monitor the spread of Covid while people got vaccinated – will likely soon cost money for the first time, under new plans put forward by the Health Ministry.

The plans have been sent to the 16 states and the Bundestag ahead of crunch talks happening next week on how Germany should deal with the pandemic in the cooler months.

READ ALSO: Germany needs Covid measures in autumn but ‘drastic lockdown unlikely’

When will Germany start charging for tests?

According to Berlin regional newspaper Tagesspiegel, which gained access to the government’s draft plans, the Health Ministry wants to stop allowing free rapid tests in mid-October.

By that point everyone will have had the chance to get vaccinated, the report by the ministry said, which means that taxpayers cannot be expected to cover the costs of tests.

The federal government has been covering the cost of at least one rapid test per week per person in Germany since March. Some states – such as Berlin – have been subsiding for one free Bürgertest (citizen test) per day. 

Health Minister Jens Spahn’s department proposed an end date for free rapid tests on October 11th or 18th.

However, the ministry notes that people who cannot be vaccinated – or groups where there’s no general vaccination recommendation, such as pregnant women or under 18s – should continue to have access to free tests. 

Why is this happening?

The German government has ruled out compulsory vaccination, including for certain groups such as health workers. 

But authorities still want to use initiatives to convince people to go and get the jab. Getting rid of free rapid tests in one way of making being unvaccinated inconvenient – and possibly pricey. 

While those who are 100 percent against vaccinations may never be convinced of getting a Covid vaccine, it is hoped that hesitant people, or those who just haven’t got round to it yet, will go and get their jabs if they have to pay for tests out of their own pockets. 

How much would tests cost?

That we have no idea about at this stage. At the moment, if you have to pay for a rapid test – for example if you’re travelling and don’t have access to a free one – it can cost around €30 to €50 but this varies widely across the country depending on the provider.

As for the taxpayer costs – a report on Thursday by the Rheinische Post found rapid tests have cost the federal government a cool €3.7 billion this year. 

But they have been found to be effective, as part of a package of measures, at controlling the infection situation. 

READ ALSO: Schnelltests: Did rapid tests help bring Germany’s Covid infection rate under control?

Plus, Germany’s free rapid test network has been praised by people across the world. 

Is this definitely going to happen?

The issue of free testing being abolished will be discussed on August 10th at the meeting between Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders. 

But it does seem that getting rid of free tests will be less a matter of “if” and more about “when”. 

Government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer recently stressed that rapid tests would “certainly not suddenly become chargeable overnight”, and would remain free for a while longer.

German authorities will want to wait until everyone has had the chance of receiving both their vaccine doses (or one in the case of Johnson & Johnson) and has had the 14-day period after their last dose to build up immunity before they get rid of free testing.

READ ALSO: How can tourists and visitors in Germany get a Covid-19 test?

How many people will this affect?

It’s difficult to say at the moment because not everyone has had the chance to be fully vaccinated at this stage.

As things currently stand 53.6 percent of the population is fully vaccinated and 62.1 percent are partially jabbed. So about 38 percent of people haven’t been vaccinated yet.

READ ALSO: Covid infection rate in Germany goes up – but vaccines having an impact

We can expect vaccinations to increase in the coming weeks, although the rate of daily shots is much slower than before. 

On Wednesday 536,961 jabs were delivered into arms of people across the country. And on Sunday just 115,113 vaccines were administered.

That’s a big drop from the dizzying heights of more than a million jabs being given out on some days just a couple of months ago. 

What are decision makers saying about getting rid of free tests?

In the past days, calls for an end to the free tests in Germany have increased. Schleswig-Holstein’s state premier Daniel Günther has even brought an earlier date into the conversation: the end of summer: September 20th.

The cost of a rapid antigen test by trained staff is currently €20 to €30, depending on the provider, according to the state government in Kiel.

In Bavaria, state premier Markus Söder (CSU) also spoke out in favour. “Testing costs enormous sums,” he said recently.

READ ALSO: Should Germany bring in Covid restrictions for unvaccinated people only?

But in Bavaria’s coalition with the Free Voters, the pressure is not going down well.

“We can’t put a gun to everyone’s head who doesn’t want to be vaccinated,” Free Voters party leader and deputy state premier Hubert Aiwanger told the Tagesspiegel. Aiwanger has been facing questions over why he is not vaccinated himself yet.

The Social Democrats (SPD) support this proposal. Director of the SPD parliamentary group, Carsten Schneider, said, “In the long run, we will not be able to afford free tests.”

“Corona tests should become chargeable when everyone could have been vaccinated – that is, in a few weeks,” said SPD chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz recently.

Others who aren’t so jazzed about the idea include Green Party health politician Janosch Dahmen who warned against the assumption that people could be persuaded to get vaccinated in this way.

“As a doctor and politician, I am not convinced that we will get people to vaccinate at the current time with debates about pressure, coercion and punishment,” he stressed.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) said: “As long as the pandemic continues, I would not change anything about freedom from costs. I want those who are neither vaccinated nor recovered to have the chance to test,” Seehofer said.

“How many people do you think will stop taking or be able to take the test if it’s not free? With that, there could be a hidden infection event,” he warned.

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German health agency expects number of Covid ICU patients to rise

The Covid pandemic is continuing to cause problems around Germany, with concerns that the number of patients needing treatment will rise in the coming weeks.

German health agency expects number of Covid ICU patients to rise

In its weekly Covid report, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) said that confirmed infections appeared to be rising in some German states, and falling in others.

But experts warned that the situation remained tense, with many infections not reported. 

Therefore, in the coming weeks, “hospitalisations, an increase in intensive care treatment and deaths are to be expected, especially among the elderly”, said the RKI.

People over the age of 80 “continue to be most affected by severe courses of the disease”, the experts said in their report. 

The incidence of infections is continuing to rise for this age group, and the number of outbreaks of Covid-19 in medical treatment facilities as well as in old people’s and nursing homes is going up.

READ ALSO: Which Covid rules are likely to return to Germany in autumn?

The number of patients with Covid-19 being treated in intensive care units (ICUs) is also rising slightly. In the previous week, the number was reported to be around 1,330. And on Thursday July 28th, 1,550 people were in ICUs in Germany with 484 receiving ventilation treatment, according to the DIVI intensive care register. 

The number of deaths in connection with the virus is currently around just over 400 per week. The RKI says this trend is a plateau.

When it comes to the overall picture of Covid in Germany, the RKI said there was a “sideways movement rather than a decreasing trend”.

Last week, the nationwide 7-day incidence decreased slightly compared to the previous week. The overall picture shows falling incidences in most western German states and Berlin, with incidences still rising slightly in the other eastern German states and Bavaria.

The RKI estimates there’s been a total of 800,000 to 1.5 million people with Covid (who also have symptoms) in the past week alone in Germany.

Last week experts warned that they expected the Covid situation to get worse in the coming weeks as many schools in Germany return after the summer break.

READ ALSO: Germany’s summer Covid wave set to get worse

The Omicron sub-variant BA.5, which has dominated in Germany since mid-June, has almost completely displaced other variants. It accounts for 89 percent of samples in the past week, the RKI said.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach warned people against underestimating getting Covid again.

The SPD politician pointed out that it was very easy to become infected with BA.5 – even for those who were infected with a previous type.

He warned that many could become seriously ill or die, plus there’s the risk of picking up Long Covid.

“Therefore, we have to solve the problem not by constant infection, but by better vaccines,” Lauterbach said.

‘Call things as they are’

Lauterbach, meanwhile, defended himself against his choice of words when describing the possibility of a new dangerous Covid variant emerging in autumn. 

In an interview with Bild newspaper in April he said: “It is quite possible that we will get a highly contagious Omicron variant that is as deadly as Delta – that would be an absolute killer variant.”

He was slammed for his dramatic choice of words. 

This week Lauterbach said: “I use few vocabulary that is apocalyptic. But sometimes you have to call things as they are.”

If there were a virus that linked the contagion of the BA.5 variant with the severe course of a Delta variant, “that would be a killer variant”, he maintained.

But he stressed that he had “not said that such a variant is definitely coming, but that we have to be prepared for such a variant”.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister calls on under 60s to get next Covid jab