Celebrate Christmas with ‘closest circle’ says head of German health agency

The President of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) Lothar Wieler has urged people in Germany to cut down on social contact at Christmas to slow down the spread of the Omicron variant.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, left, and RKI head Lothar Wieler after Thursday's press conference.
Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, left, and RKI head Lothar Wieler after Thursday's press conference. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka

Speaking during a press conference with Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, Wieler, called for Christmas to be celebrated with a small group of close family and friends. 

“We all want to spend the holidays with family and friends, yes – but we all also have to work together to ensure that Christmas does not become a kick-start for Omicron,” he said.

He urged people in Germany to spend the festive season in a way that would “not be a celebration for the virus”.

“Really only spend this time in the smallest, closest circle of friends and family,” he said.

When meeting people from at-risk groups, Wieler recommended doing a Covid test even if fully vaccinated.

Wieler said although cases have been dropping in Germany in recent days, that many intensive care units were still struggling.

He said it was now about limiting the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 so clinics can get some relief before numbers rise again, which might result in more people needing hospital treatment. 

In Germany, several hundred Omicron cases have been reported so far, Wieler said.

Health Minister Lauterbach told the press conference that he was watching the situation in the UK closely.

According to the BBC, the latest data suggests about a quarter of cases are Omicron. This would mean around 20,000 of Wednesday’s reported 79,000 cases in the UK could be attributed to the new variant.

It became the dominant variant in London on Wednesday. 

Britain is reporting “very worrying figures”, said Lauterbach, adding that it was important to keep the spread of the variant in Germany as slow as possible.  


Vaccine shortage 

Lauterbach said Germany’s strategy was to continually get more booster shots into arms in a bid to offer people more protection against Omicron.

He said the government was working to make sure sufficient vaccines were available, after he revealed earlier this week there would be a shortage in January. He said there were set to be 20 million too few vaccine doses in the first quarter.

Lauterbach said the shortage would mean the top-up vaccine campaign would not be completed until the end of March, which was “not sufficient for our booster strategy”.

He said that 50 million booster vaccine doses had been ordered for the first quarter, but that there was also a need for 20 million first and second jabs. But Lauterbach said: “This is explicitly not a criticism of my predecessor, I talked about it with Jens Spahn (the former Health Minister) last night.”

READ ALSO: German Health Minister warns of vaccine shortages ‘from January’

The Minister confirmed that the EU Commission had agreed to early deliveries of 35 million doses of Moderna. He said he was also in talks with Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Portugal to procure more doses. 

On Wednesday Germany reported a record 1.496 million vaccinations in a day, 1.3 million of which were boosters. As of Thursday, 70 percent of the population was fully vaccinated. 

On Thursday there were 56,677 Covid infections in Germany in the last 24 hours, and 522 Covid-related deaths. The 7-day incidence was 340.1 infections per 100,000 people. 

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Germany to charge €3 for rapid Covid tests

Germany is set to end free rapid Covid tests for all from July. In future they will cost €3.

Germany to charge €3 for rapid Covid tests

Vulnerable groups, however, will still be able to get the tests, known as Bürgertests, free of charge under the plans.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said: “I will make no secret of the fact that I would have liked to have continued the free citizenship tests for all.”

However, Lauterbach said the taxpayer-funded testing strategy is costing an average of a billion euros per month.

“The truth is – unfortunately, we can’t afford that in the tight budget situation that awaits us in autumn,” he said. 

€3 contribution from July

The new testing regulations are to apply from the start of July.

The concept foresees expenditures of €2.7 billion by the end of the year. If the government had continued to offer free tests for all, the costs would have been around €5 billion.

The federal government also plans to reduce the amount that is given to the test centres per test – from the current €11.50 to €9.50.

In future, free rapid tests will continue to be available for vulnerable groups, including children up to five years of age, women at the beginning of pregnancy, and visitors to clinics and nursing homes.

The states will have the option of taking over the co-payment of €3 for other groups as well.

Lauterbach had previously spoken out in favour of continuing to provide free Covid tests for people with symptoms who suspect they have Covid, as well as before large events. 

READ ALSO: Germany to scrap free Covid tests for all 

Bürgertests should in future continue to be used specifically where they bring the greatest benefit,” said Lauterbach after the health ministers’ conference.

Lauterbach said he negotiated with Federal Finance Minister Christian Lindner to come up with the new testing system. 

“The use of taxpayers’ money will become more effective, as not everything can be paid by the federal government in the long run, because our possibilities have reached their limits,” said Lindner. 

Autumn Covid wave

Lauterbach also warned of a severe Covid wave in autumn.

“A very difficult time lies ahead,” the Health Minister said. He said the health ministers across Germany would take a joint approach to tackling the pandemic.

READ ALSO: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan