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EXPLAINED: How Covid ‘3G’ rules could work on German public transport

An empty bus travels through the city of Hamburg
An empty bus travels through the city of Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marcus Brandt
From Wednesday, passengers will need to carry a negative Covid test, proof of vaccination or a certificate of recovery on German buses and trains. But how would this work in practice? We take a look.

What’s going on?

As The Local reported on Friday, the three parties in talks to form a new German government – the SPD, Greens and FDP – have passed sweeping changes to the Infection Protection Act that will see a range of new Covid measures come into force this week. 

The plans are designed to standardise some Covid measures on a national level, as well as giving the federal states powers to tackle Germany’s spiralling Covid infection rates and rising hospitalisations over winter.

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One major change on a national level is that, as of Wednesday, te so-called ‘3G rule’ has been introduced in Germany on local and regional public transport. This means passengers travelling on buses, trains and trams will have to show proof that they are vaccinated (geimpft), recovered from Covid (genesen) or have taken a negative test in the past 24 hours (getestet) in order to travel. 

In other words, making sure you have your Covid vaccination passport or test to hand before taking the train has become almost as important as making sure you’ve bought a ticket.

Why is this needed? 

Despite the fact that more than two thirds of the German population is now fully vaccinated, infections have been rising at a dizzying pace over the past month or so. On Wednesday, the number of new Covid cases recorded in a day jumped to almost 67,000, while the national 7-day incidence has reached another new high of 404 cases per 100,000 people. 

Meanwhile, the number of daily Covid deaths and the number of patients in intensive care has also shot up. On Wednesday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported 335 Covid-related deaths in a single day. In the RKI’s latest daily report published on Wednesday, the hospitalisation incidence was 5.74 per 100,000 people – up from 5.6 on Tuesday. 

READ ALSO: Germany sees more than 52,000 Covid infections in a day

At the same time, the ‘epidemic situation of national importance’ – which allows the federal government to set out new Covid rules without involving parliament – is due to expire on November 25th, and neither the outgoing Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU), nor the incoming government, is keen to keep it in place.

The German Chancellor's Office at night
The German Chancellor’s Office at night. Germany is in the midst of an ever-worsening Covid crisis and politicians are divided on how to handle it. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Paul Zinken

Instead, the ‘traffic light’ coalition – named after the party colours of the SPD, Greens and FDP – has put bridging legislation in place to carry the country through winter. This has brought some rules – such as testing in care homes and 3G in the workplace and public transport – in on a national level. It has also allow granted the states powers to introduce or enforce other rules. 

This legislation will also expire on March 19th next year, but until it does, it will be mandatory to carry proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test on all types of public transport. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s future coalition parties set out Covid plans for winter

How could 3G be enforced on public transport?

At the moment, the plans are vague, but it appears that the traffic light parties are envisioning random spot checks for travellers on public transport – much like an ordinary ticket inspection. If passengers are found without the necessary evidence, they will be asked to get off the train or bus at the next stop. 

In France and Italy, where the Covid health pass system is now used on long-distance trains and coaches, Covid health passes are generally checked on board by guards or ticket inspectors, though the checks can also take place before boarding at larger stations. 

If passengers are found to be travelling on the train without the relevant test, vaccine certificate or proof of recovery from Covid, they’re generally asked to vacate the train. In France, you may also be subject to a €135 fine – the same amount you’re charged if you don’t wear a mask on public transport. If they’re unable to present the necessary evidence of immunity or a negative test when asked by guards before they board, passengers are forbidden from getting on the train.

Train station in Paris
A man walks across the platform in a Parisian train station. In France, passengers without their health pass can be ejected from the train or issued fines. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Francois Mori

A similar system could be introduced Germany on long-distance public transport like ICE/IC trains, where ticket checks tend to be carried out more regularly. Rail operator Deutsche Bahn has already confirmed that it will be carrying out randomised checks on its buses and trains from Wednesday, which the company’s own security services and train conductors will be responsible for.

“This includes around 4,200 employees of DB Sicherheit as well as around 5,000 DB-owned or commissioned service and control personnel on S-Bahn, RE and RB trains,” the railway said.

However, things could get more patchy on local public services. 

In this context, local areas might rely more on a partly honour-based system with randomised checks and fines for those without a valid test or proof of vaccination or recovery. 

In practice, it may end up being a similar story to the road border checks that the outgoing government attempted to introduce last summer. Though travellers by car into Germany are supposed to have a negative test or proof of vaccination or recovery to hand when they enter, anecdotal reports suggests that people who cross the border this way are rarely, if ever, stopped and checked. This is likely due to limited police resources and the sheer size of Germany’s land borders. 

What else do I need to know? 

If the 3G rule is brought in, there would be some exceptions, according to the draft law. So far, the details don’t seem to have been fully fleshed out, though schoolchildren and passengers in taxis would likely be spared from having to present their proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test. 

It’s also important to note that the 3G rules aren’t being envisioned as a replacement to the ongoing mandatory masks on public transport. Even with strict conditions for travelling on public transport in place, passengers will be required to wear an FPP2 or medical mask onboard buses, trains and trams. 

What are people saying?

As you might expect, many commentators have aired scepticism over the enforcement of such a rule on public transport – not least of all the local transport operators themselves.

In response to the plans, the Association of German Transport Companies (VDV) complained that operators wouldn’t have “sufficient capacity” to check for 3G proof in buses and trains alongside the mandatory mask requirement. Representatives of transport companies have also called for more clarity on how to enforce the rules, including how they should handle customers who don’t have valid health documents with them.

The passenger association Pro Bahn has also criticised the policy of making people without the relevant 3G pass get off at the next stop – which could end up being a blunt instrument when it comes to high-speed intercity train travel.

“Anyone travelling from Hamburg to Berlin who is caught without 3G proof shortly after Hamburg can still travel almost the whole way,” the association’s honorary chairman, Karl-Peter Naumann, told DPA. “In local transport, they can’t control it at all.” 

It’s also not clear what would happen with customers who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons. 

Last Monday, virologist Christian Drosten also aired concerns that 3G by itself would not be enough to protect unvaccinated people from getting infected on public transport, since in a period of high Covid incidences, even vaccinated people can get an asymptomatic infection which could then pose risks to others. 

German virologist Christian Drosten
Virologist Christian Drosten is not convinced that 3G on public transport will be effective at dampening high infection rates. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

His comments were echoed by Bavaria’s state premier Markus Söder (CSU), who claimed that national rules mandating that everyone had to wear an FPP2 mask on buses and trains would be more effective than badly enforced 3G rules

However, other politicians have spoken out in favour of the move. In the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, for instance, state health minister Heiner Garg (FDP) said he though the idea was “right in principle”.

“But I want to make it clear that those responsible would like to have some indication of how this can be sensibly monitored,” he added. “The best regulation is only effective if its compliance can be convincingly monitored.” 

READ ALSO: Germany is in the grip of ‘dramatic’ Covid situation, says Merkel


Member comments

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  1. Last Monday, virologist Christian Drosten also aired concerns that 3G by itself would not be enough to protect unvaccinated people from getting infected on public transport, since in a period of high Covid incidences, even vaccinated people can get an asymptomatic infection which could then pose risks to others.

    Except for a handful of medical exemptions, those who choose to not get vaccinated have chosen whatever ill befalls them. You can’t punish the vaccinated to protect the unvaccinated. That’s completely unacceptable.

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