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EXPLAINED: How Germany aims to increase vaccinations and control the Covid fourth wave

Germany is planning to expand its Covid health pass scheme and charge for Covid tests in a bid to encourage more people to get vaccinated. Here's a look at what the government and states have agreed.

EXPLAINED: How Germany aims to increase vaccinations and control the Covid fourth wave
Berlin mayor Michael Müller, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bavarian state premier Markus Söder leaving the press conference on August 10th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Reuters/Pool | Christian Mang

Chancellor Angela Merkel met with the 16 state premiers on Tuesday to thrash out Germany’s strategy for dealing with the fourth Covid wave this autumn. 

They decided to expand Germany’s version of the ‘Covid health pass’ scheme, and get rid of free rapid tests as a way of boosting vaccinations. 

READ ALSO: Germany to end free-of-charge Covid tests in bid to boost vaccine take-up

Here are the main points: 

  • Rapid tests will no longer be free for all from October 11th. There will be some exceptions such as for those who can’t get the Covid vaccine for medical reasons and children. People who choose not to get the Covid jab, even though they are eligible to get it, will have to pay for rapid tests themselves.
  • The 3G requirement – which means people have to be vaccinated (geimpft), in recovery from Covid (genesen) or tested (getestet) will be significantly tightened. When a district hits a 7-day incidence of 35 Covid infections per 100,000 people, the rule will apply in several indoor areas like in restaurants, cinemas and gyms – and also in hospitals, care homes and assisted living facilities. States will have some say on how this works. This rule will come in nationwide on August 23rd.
  • The 7-day incidence is to remain the definitive benchmark for assessing the Covid situation in Germany. However, other indicators such as the vaccination rate, the number of severe courses of disease, and the burden on the health care system are to be monitored more closely in the future.
  • The Bundestag is to extend the “epidemic situation of national importance” beyond September 11th at the request of the federal and state governments. The emergency situation is considered the government’s most important legal basis for implementing measures in the pandemic. It gives the federal government the right to directly issue regulations on issues like testing and vaccination.

How will Germany decide how to put more measures in place in future?

Up to this point, German states and the government have been using the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 to measure when to bring more rules in. For instance, the emergency brake measures – which included a curfew – were brought in when areas reached 100 Covid cases per 100,000 people.

READ ALSO: Germany at ‘start of fourth wave’ – but Covid infections are slowing

But now that risk groups are protected through vaccination, authorities want to consider other factors for deciding measures – such as Covid hospital admissions.

However, Merkel stressed that the incidence was still one of the most important factors.

From August 23rd, unvaccinated people will need a negative Covid test to visit hospitals in areas where the incidence is above 35. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Ulrich Perrey

“If the incidence in 20-year-olds increases dramatically, there will be hospitalisations there as well, ” she said, adding that the figure remains relevant.

“We have not yet found a happy formula to replace this figure,” added Bavaria’s Minister President Markus Söder (CSU). He said this will be looked at in the coming weeks and months.

In future states will be able to take greater account of indicators such as vaccination rates or the number of of Covid patients being admitted to hospital as well as the incidence.

These indicators could be used “to quickly and accurately estimate the extent to which new infections are still leading to severe courses of disease in light of the growing immunity in the population,” according to the resolution paper by the federal and state governments.

What else are politicians saying?

Merkel pleaded for people to get vaccinated.

“It is everyone’s responsibility … to promote vaccination wherever possible,” said Merkel said, urging “all friends and family members who have been vaccinated to promote this in their circles of friends and families and sport clubs”.

She said she was frustrated at the slow pace of vaccinations in Germany which have taken a nose dive in recent weeks. 

“Germany is not leading Europe in vaccination coverage anymore,” said Merkel. “There’s a row of countries that are doing better and where people are happier to get vaccinated than in Germany.” 

Bavarian state premier Markus Söder and Chancellor Merkel at Tuesday’s press conference, following the roundtable. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Reuters/Pool | Christian Mang

“The fourth wave is really creeping up,” Bavaria’s premier Söder said. “We’re good at vaccinating, but nowhere near as good as we need to be.”

At the same time, Söder promised that another lockdown would be avoided at all costs. Future restrictions will apply primarily to those who refuse vaccination.

“Our normal life is coming back through vaccination,” Söder said. 

Will ‘3G’ change to ‘2G”? 

There has been some discussion over the last few weeks about changing the ‘3G’ vaccinated, recovered or tested rule to a ‘2G’ rule – meaning that unvaccinated people would be be barred from some areas of life, like attending large football matches or going to nightclubs.

This has been proposed as a potential measure by the Federal Health Ministry, who want to see it brought in if infection rates reach a very high level.

READ ALSO: Germany considers tougher rules for the unvaccinated in autumn – but ‘drastic lockdown unlikely’

Such a move would be incredibly controversial and there was clearly no agreement on it at Tuesday’s roundtable – but some are keen to continue the debate.

Markus Söder, who has previously floated the idea of ‘vaccinated-only’ clubs and nightlife in his home state of Bavaria, said he believed 2G would continue to be high on the political agenda in the coming weeks. 

“2G will come in one way or another from a certain point on and I would rather we talked about it honestly now rather than postpone it until after the federal elections,” he said. 

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Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.