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COVID-19

German states order tougher Covid rules to fight fourth wave

Hard-hit German states are piling pressure on the unvaccinated with new restrictions to fight the Covid-19 fourth wave.

A Zugspitzbahn employee sticks a 2G notice up at the entrance to a cable car lift.
A Zugspitzbahn employee sticks a 2G notice up at the entrance to a cable car lift in Grainau, Bavaria. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

The nationwide 7-day incidence across Germany reached a record high on Monday. It soared to 201.1 Covid infections per 100,000 people within seven days – surpassing the last high of 197.6 reached on December 22nd, 2020.

And in some German states the incidence is even higher. In Saxony, the 7-day incidence reached 491.3 infections per 100,000 residents, making it the current Covid hotspot in Germany.

Saxony also has the lowest vaccination rate, with just 57.1 percent of the population fully vaccinated. Nationwide, 67.1 percent of the population is fully jabbed.

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

What are the changes to Covid restrictions?

Saxony significantly tightened Covid measures – and they are mostly aimed at people eligible for vaccination who choose not to get their shots. 

From Monday onwards, only vaccinated people – or those who’ve recovered from Covid-19 in the last six months – have access to many areas of public life in the eastern state. These include indoor restaurants, cultural and leisure facilities and football stadiums. This is the so-called 2G rule, which stands for geimpft (vaccinated) and genesen (recovered). 

Unlike the 3G rules, which include access to unvaccinated people with a test (getestet) people who are unvaccinated are generally excluded. 

States are pushing restrictions towards unvaccinated people because infection rates are higher in this group, and they are more likely to suffer a severe course of Covid-19 if they become infected. On Sunday Saxon state figures showed that the 7-day incidence among the vaccinated was 80 cases per 100,000 people, while it was almost 900 among the unvaccinated. 

READ ALSO: German state of Saxony announces sweeping curbs on unvaccinated

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

The state is also ordering compulsory FFP2 masks on public transport. The federal requirement is for people to wear medical masks. 

READ ALSO:

Tougher Covid rules have been in force in Bavaria since Sunday due to the high number of occupied intensive care beds.

The south-eastern state also has a lower than average vaccination rate, with 65 percent of the population fully jabbed. 

In the southern state, only vaccinated people, those who’ve recovered from Covid and people with a negative PCR test are now allowed to enter some parts of public life, such as indoor events (so-called 3G plus rule)  In the past, unvaccinated people could show a rapid antigen test rather than the more expensive PCR test. 

FFP2 masks have to be worn again by everyone in certain public areas such as on transport. In regions where the number of new infections and intensive care patients is higher, even stricter rules apply.

However, Bavaria’s traffic light ‘Covid warning system’ looks set to hit red soon – the highest alert. 

Bavaria will implement 2G rules when there are more than 600 Covid-19 patients in intensive care for two days in a row. On Monday, there were 604 Covid patients in ICU. If the number remains at this level, Bavaria will order tougher measures on the third day. 

Meanwhile, Baden-Württemberg is preparing to declare the highest risk level of their ‘Covid warning system’, which would see restrictions tightened.

Last week the south western state ordered costly PCR tests for unvaccinated people seeking access to indoor dining or other activities (3G-plus), but fell short of an all-out exclusion.

However, the ministry of social affairs said Sunday it expects the highest alert level to be declared soon.

As of Sunday, 323 patients with Covid-19 were being treated in intensive care units (ICU) in the state. If the number of patients rises above 390 over two days, new restrictions will apply.

The state would move to a 2G system – excluding the unvaccinated from many public places like museums, indoor dining and bars. 

Around 65.2 percent of Baden-Württemberg is fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

Will 2G be the norm?

Many states in Germany, including Berlin and Hamburg, already offer businesses the option of enforcing the 2G rule. But there are calls for a Germany-wide 2G system that would see the unvaccinated excluded from public life.

Some states are against this move, though.

Schleswig-Holstein, for instance, continues to back 3G rules. 

“I don’t believe in massively increasing the pressure on non-vaccinated people,” health minister Heiner Garg (FDP) told German broadcaster ARD.

READ MORE: Calls grow for Germany to bring in national restrictions for unvaccinated

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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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