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COVID-19

‘A fair deal for taxpayer’: German health minister defends ending free Covid tests

German Health Minister Jens Spahn has fought back against criticism from doctors' associations, saying now is the right time to end free rapid testing for the coronavirus.

The entrance to a test centre in Zwickau, Saxony.
The entrance to a test centre in Zwickau, Saxony. Photo: dpa-Zentralbild | Jan Woitas

“Giving a fair deal to the taxpayer was the reason we abolished free rapid coronavirus tests,” Spahn told the newspapers of the Funke Mediengruppe.

“Everyone for whom vaccines are recommended has now had the chance to get vaccinated,” he continued.

He pointed out that tests in nursing homes, hospitals, schools or at work will still be free of charge.

Testing at rapid test centres, thousands of which have sprouted up across German cities, will no longer be free of charge.

READ MORE: Who will still be able to get a free test starting Monday?

Several doctors’ unions have criticised the move, which will restrict free testing to people for whom vaccines aren’t recommended, starting Monday.

Ulrich Schneider, head of the Parity Welfare Association, told a local newspaper that “wealthy vaccine skeptics, who can afford to pay for testing, will be privileged by the move.”

“Charges for rapid testing will result in fewer people with symptoms getting tested in the future. This will open the door for further transmission of the virus,” said Susanne Johna, head of the Marburger Bund doctors’ union. 

€4 billion in costs

Free rapid testing (known as the Bürgertest/citizen test), which which has allowed non-vaccinated people enter restaurants, bars and other venues, has cost the taxpayer close to €4 billion since it was rolled out in the spring. 

SPD health expert Karl Lauterbach has stated that ending free testing is not just about cost-saving but is also meant to motivate people to get vaccinated.

“Making tests cost money will lead to many more people being vaccinated because they will want to avoid regular testing,” Lauterbach said.

Back in August, Chancellor Angela Merkel and state health ministers announced that Schnelltests – or rapid antigen Covid-19 tests would cost a fee from Monday, October 11th.

Since March this year rapid tests have been taxpayer funded and therefore free to anyone who wants them – including tourists and visitors to Germany.

Some groups of people, such as children under 12 for whom there is no approved Covid vaccine, will still be entitled to free tests. People who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons will also continue to get the cost of rapid tests covered by the government. 

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COVID-19

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany. 

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