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German state of Saxony announces sweeping curbs for the unvaccinated

The eastern state of Saxony on Friday announced new restrictions for people who have not been vaccinated against Covid-19 or recovered from the disease, as the country grapples with a dramatic surge in infections.

A sign showing entry is only for people who are vaccinated or have recovered from Covid (2G) at a bar in Dresden.
A sign showing entry is only for people who are vaccinated or have recovered from Covid (2G) at a bar in Dresden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Robert Michael

From Monday, access to indoor dining and other indoor events will be limited to those who are fully vaccinated or can show proof of recovery, local government minister Petra Köpping told a news conference in Dresden.

“We have not managed to build a protective wall of vaccinated people over the past few weeks and months,” Koepping said.

The new rules would mark the toughest state-wide restrictions in Germany against non-inoculated people. Only children as well as those who cannot receive jabs for medical reasons will be exempt.

READ ALSO: Why are Covid infections spiralling in three German states?

The western state of Baden-Württemberg had on Wednesday ordered costly PCR tests for unvaccinated people seeking access to indoor dining or other activities, but fell short of an all-out exclusion.

Germany registered 37,120 new infections in the past 24 hours on Friday, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) health agency — a record rise for the second day running.

Saxony has one of the highest incidence rates in the country at 385.7 new infections per 100,000 people over the past seven days.

It also has the lowest vaccination rate, with just 57 percent of its inhabitants fully inoculated, according to the RKI – compared with a national average of 67 percent.

The surge in German cases comes with the country in political limbo following September’s general election.

The incoming coalition parties, aiming to form a government by early December, have so far ruled out mandatory jabs and said there will be no new lockdowns – at least not for the vaccinated.

But several of Germany’s states, which have significant powers to decide their own Covid approach, have already agreed or are poised to introduce restrictions for the unvaccinated.

From Saturday, Bavaria will limit certain events and spaces in Covid hotspots to people who are fully vaccinated or can show proof of recovery – known as “2G” in Germany.

Berlin is also considering similar restrictions.

READ ALSO: How German states are tightening Covid rules for winter

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COVID-19 RULES

Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

Bavaria's state premier Markus Söder (CSU) has announced plans for a "prompt" end to mandatory masks on buses and trains.

Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

If infection levels and hospitalisations remain low, the end of the mask-wearing rule could come as soon as December or January.

“We are convinced that the mask requirement in public transport could also be phased out either in mid-December or early next year, if the numbers remain reasonably stable and there are no new mutations,” Söder explained on Monday, following a meeting with the CSU executive committee. 

A decision on when to end the measure would be made “promptly”, he added.

The CSU politician had said last week that the sinking infection rates meant that compulsory masks were no longer appropriate and that the mandate could be changed to a recommendation. 

No set date for change

The latest version of Bavaria’s Infection Protection Act – which lays out an obligation to wear masks on public transport as one of the few remaining Covid rules – is currently due to expire on December 9th.

State ministers could decide whether to let obligatory masks on buses and trains lapse on this date as early as next week, or they could decide to initially extend the legislation and set an alternative date for ending the rule.

Regardless of their decision, FFP2 masks will continue to be mandatory on long-distance public transport until at least April next year, when the nationwide Infection Protection Act is due to expire.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

Speaking to Süddeutsche Zeitung on Monday after the meeting of the Council of Ministers, Florian Herrmann (CSU), head of the State Chancellery, confirmed that Covid-19 had been discussed in passing.

However, no decisions or discussions were made on how to proceed after the expiry of the regulation, he said.

According to Herrmann, the fact that Covid was no longer the “dominant topic” in the cabinet under “enormous tension” shows “that we are returning to normality” in a gradual transition from pandemic to endemic. 

As of Wednesday, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 people stood at 108 in Bavaria, down from 111 the previous day. However, experts have cast doubt on how meaningful the incidence is in light of the fact that fewer people are taking tests.

Nevertheless, the 133 hospital beds occupied by Covid patients in the Free State falls well below the 600 threshold for a ‘red alert’. With Omicron causing less severe courses of illness than previous variants, politicians have increasingly focussed on hospitalisation statistics to gauge the severity of the situation.

‘A risk-benefit trade-off’

Bavaria is the second federal state to announce plans to relax its mask-wearing rules in recent weeks.

On November 14th, the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein announced that it would be ending obligatory FFP2 masks on public transport and urged other states to do the same. From January 2023, masks on public transport will only be recommended rather than mandated for passengers on local buses and trains. 

However, the Federal Ministry of Health has urged states not to loosen their rules too quickly.

Given that infection rates are likely to spike again in winter, “there’s no basis for loosening restrictions”, said Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD).

Physicians are also split on whether an end to masks on public transport is appropriate.

READ ALSO: Will Germany get rid of masks on public transport?

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) speaks at the German Hospital Day in Düsseldorf on November 14th. Lauterbach is against the lifting of the mask-wearing rule. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Christoph Spinner, a virologist at the University Hospital in Munich, told Süddeutsche Zeitung he believed it was time to put the decision on mask-wearing back into the hands of individuals.

“Why not? The incidences are low, the danger of Covid-19 has dropped significantly and mortality has also decreased,” he said. 

But the Bavarian General Practitioners’ Association spoke out against the move, arguing that – unlike a trip to a restaurant or cinema – people often have no choice but to travel on public transport.

“If the obligation to wear a mask in public transport is maintained, this will help to protect against a Covid infection on the way to work by bus or train – especially in view of the discontinuation of the obligation to isolate in the event of a Covid infection,” they explained.

Bavaria is one of four states to have recently ended mandatory isolation for people who test positive for Covid. Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein both scrapped their isolation mandate last week, while Hesse removed its obligation on Tuesday. 

READ ALSO: Four German states call for end to mandatory Covid isolation

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