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COVID-19

Germany eyes tougher Covid restrictions as infection rate soars

Germany's incoming coalition parties unveiled fresh proposals on Monday to fight the country's Covid resurgence, as the weekly rate of new coronavirus infections hit an all-time high.

A Covid information sign in Ingolstadt, Bavaria.
A Covid information sign in Ingolstadt, Bavaria. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Matthias Balk

Germany registered an incidence rate of 201.1 new cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) said, surpassing the previous record of 197.6 reached on December 22nd, 2020.

The surge in cases, blamed on the nation’s relatively low vaccination rate, has prompted widespread alarm in recent weeks as hospital beds fill up rapidly.

Underlining the urgency, the three parties striving to form Germany’s next coalition government following September’s general election presented a raft of pandemic-fighting proposals  – despite not officially being in power yet.

The Social Democrats, the Greens and the liberal FDP released draft legislation that will give Germany’s 16 regional states a legal framework to tame the fourth wave of the pandemic.

The goal is “to protect as many people as possible during the autumn and winter months,” said Dirk Wiese, deputy leader of the Social Democrats’ parliamentary group.

The plan includes the possibility to exclude unvaccinated people from some indoor events, stricter prevention measures in the workplace, and the option of requiring PCR tests instead of rapid tests.

The incoming coalition partners also want to reintroduce free coronavirus testing, after it was dropped last month as it failed to spur enough unvaccinated people to get the jab.

The proposals will be discussed by the lower house of parliament this week and are slated to take effect from the end of November.

READ ALSO: Will Germany bring back free rapid Covid tests amid infection surge?

Curbs on unvaccinated

The three parties which aim to have a new government installed next month – with Olaf Scholz replacing Angela Merkel as chancellor – have however ruled out mandatory jabs or nationwide lockdowns.

The coronavirus vaccination rate in the EU’s most populous country has stagnated at under 70 percent, despite official pleas for more citizens to get the jab.

The eastern state of Saxony, where the incidence rate is more than twice the national average at 491.3, on Monday introduced the nation’s toughest restrictions yet for unvaccinated people.

READ ALSO: German states order tougher Covid rules to fight fourth wave

Access to indoor dining and other indoor events will be limited to those who are fully vaccinated or can show proof of recovery, a system known as “2G” in Germany.

Only children as well as those who cannot receive jabs for medical reasons will be exempt.

Several other states including Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Hesse are also adopting tougher curbs.

Germans are also closely watching Austria, where the start of 2G rules has lled to queues outside vaccination centres.

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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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