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COVID-19

Germany sets up Covid crisis team amid calls for new measures

The incoming German government has announced that it is putting together a Covid emergency response team as calls for an urgent review of current restrictions grow louder.

Walter Steinmeier and Carsten Breuer
German President Walter Steinmeier visits Carsten Breuer, commander of the Territorial Taskforce, in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka

According to FDP leader Christian Lindner, the newly formed crisis team could begin its work in the next few days – meaning it will start work around a week before the new coalition government takes office.

The new group, which is likely to be headed up by a military general will be responsible for assessing the Covid situation, making key decisions and coordinating the government response to the ongoing crisis.  

The decision to establish a Covid emergency team was revealed last week on Wednesday when the three ‘traffic light’ parties unveiled their new coalition agreement in a surprise press conference held at Berlin’s Westhafen. 

In the agreement, the parties promise to “reorganise the government’s crisis management” by “immediately creating a joint crisis team to better coordinate the nationwide fight against the pandemic.”

Reports in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Monday suggest that Major General Carsten Breuer is being considered as a potential leader for the response team. The 56-year-old is commander of the Bundeswehr’s Territorial Tasks Command, which is responsible for operations of the armed forces at home.

The agreement states that that the remainder of the team will be made up of representatives from both state and federal government. This is intended to speed up the sometimes arduous process of coordinating between the 16 state leaders when decided on measures. 

READ ALSO: How Germany’s next government plans to fight Covid

Speaking to the Funke Media Group on Monday, Markus Lewe (CDU), the president of the German Association of Cities and Towns called for representatives of municipalities to also be involved the team.

“The new Covid crisis team must start immediately and the cities belong at the table,” he said. “The expertise of the cities is indispensable for this, because that is where the work is carried out and where Covid measures are implemented on the ground.”

Weekly infections hit new peak

The formation of the new crisis team comes as Germany struggles to get a grip on its ferocious fourth wave and respond to news of the Omicron variant which was discovered in South Africa last week. 

The first cases of the variant, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) says poses a “very high” global risk, were found in Germany over the weekend. 

On Monday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported that the national weekly incidence of Covid infections had hit another peak of 452 per 100,000 people, while almost 30,000 new infections were recorded within 24 hours. Since reporting tends to be lower over the weekend, the number of daily cases is expected to rise throughout the week.

Another cause of concern is the situation in hospitals. On Friday, acting Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) revealed that operations were having to be postponed due to limited space in intensive care wards.

In some regions, the pressure on hospital staff and wards is so great that some patients are now having to be transferred to different hospitals “at great cost”, he said. 

Health Minister Jens Spahn
Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) discusses the Omicron variant and current Covid situation at a press conference on Friday, November 26th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka

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With the situation worsening daily, Spahn has been one of several voices calling for urgent crunch talks between the federal government and heads of the state governments. 

Ministers had intended to discuss new Covid restrictions and review the effectiveness of the latest Covid measures at the next State Premiers’ Conference (MPK) on December 9th.

But Spahn, along with other political figures such as the Greens’ health expert Janosch Dahmen, are now calling for the MPK to be brought forward. 

“The current and new federal government will have to work out which additional regulations have to be put in place in the short term in order to enable an even more consistent fight against the pandemic,” Dahmen told Welt. 

“And we have to do that before December 9th.” 

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COVID-19 RULES

Germany to bring in new Covid rules ahead of ‘difficult’ winter

With infection numbers shooting up once again in Germany, states are set to bring in a new set of Covid measures on October 1st.

Germany to bring in new Covid rules ahead of 'difficult' winter

From Saturday, masks will no longer be required on commercial flights, though people will still be expected to wear an FFP2 mask on long-distance trains.

States will also be given the option to introduce mandatory masks in other public indoor spaces, including on local public transport and in schools. If they choose to bring in masks, they’ll also have the freedom to introduce exceptions to masks for people who are recently vaccinated or who have tested negative for Covid.

States will also be able to introduce compulsory testing in schools and nurseries.

READ ALSO: German states likely to keep mask mandate on public transport

Speaking at a press conference alongside Robert Koch Institute (RKI) chair Lothar Wieler on Friday, German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach defended the decision to keep Covid rules in place when other countries in Europe have largely got rid of their pandemic measures. 

“It’s not for me to criticise what other countries are doing,” said Lauterbach. “We have a particularly difficult winter ahead of us due to the energy crisis, we don’t want to make it worse through the Covid crisis.”

The SPD politician also defended plans for mandatory masks for residents and staff in nursing and care homes. Having 40 or 50 vulnerable people together in an enclosed space is “extremely high-risk”, he said. 

Under the new rules set to be introduced on Saturday, residents of care homes will be expected to wear FPP2 masks in all common areas of the home, and will only be able to take them off in their bedrooms.

“For people in nursing homes, the FFP2 mask requirement means a considerable cut in their quality of life,” Regina Görner, chairwoman of the Federal Association of Senior Citizens’ Organisations (Bagso), told DPA:

“The nursing home is their home, in which they can then no longer move freely without a mask.”

Visitors to nursing homes, meanwhile, will have to supply a negative Covid test, while staff will be tested three times a week. 

Under the autumn and winter rules, people across Germany will also be required to wear an FFP2 mask at their doctor’s surgery and in medical outpatient facilities such as hospitals.

“We’re better prepared than last autumn,” Lauterbach told reporters on Friday. “We have the infection numbers under control, we have this wave under control.” 

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS – Germany’s new Covid-19 rules for autumn

Steep rise in cases

As the weather turns colder, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) has reported a steep rise in respiratory infections, including Covid-19.

Last week, the number of Covid patients jumped dramatically from 500,000 to 1.2 million per week, with cases rising significantly in every age group.

Meanwhile, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 people shot up from 409 on Thursday to 466 on Friday. The previous week, the weekly incidence stood at 294 per 100,000 people. 

The numbers are believed to be partially inflated by the ongoing Oktoberfest beer festival, which is being held for the first time since the pandemic started. In Munich, the location of the festival, the weekly incidence is almost 800. 

Speaking at the press conference in Berlin on Friday, RKI chair Wieler warned people not to get complacent about the threat of infection.

“A mild course of illness simply means not ending up in hospital,” he said. “We should be conscious of how much risk we want take on, and how much risk we can avoid.”

RKI chief Lothar Wieler

Robert Koch Institute chair Lothar Wieler (l) and Heath Minister Karl Lauterbach (r) hold a press conference in Berlin on Friday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

Despite the looming energy crisis, the RKI boss advised the public to ensure that rooms were well ventilated, adding that spaces normally occupied by a large number of people should be aired out more regularly.

He also advised people with Covid symptoms to stay home until they felt better in order to avoid passing on any infections, and warned that people should be especially careful to avoid contact with vulnerable people.

“Just like before, these people need our solidarity,” he said. 

Self-isolation and quarantine rules vary from state to state, but people who test positive for Covid generally have to isolate for a minimum of five days and a maximum of 10.

In some cases, people can take an additional Covid test in order to end their isolation early.

The RKI has also recommended that people wear a mask in public enclosed spaces. 

READ ALSO: What will the Covid situation in Germany look like this autumn?

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