Germany agrees tougher Covid restrictions from December 28th

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz outlined new Covid restrictions to come into force after Christmas, including a cap on the number of people who can socialise and the closure of nightclubs.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks after the meeting on Tuesday.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks after the meeting on Tuesday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa Pool | Bernd von Jutrczenka

Following a meeting with German state leaders on Tuesday, Chancellor Scholz announced contact restrictions would also affect people who are vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19.

He said private gatherings would be limited to 10 people from December 28th. Children under 14 are not included. 

The contact restrictions already in force for the unvaccinated will remain. People who choose not to get vaccinated are allowed to meet with their own household and a max of two people from another household.

“This is not the time for parties and cosy evenings with lots of people,” Scholz said, adding: “I would have liked to share more pleasant news just before the holidays.”

Meanwhile, Germany will ban spectators from large sporting and cultural events also from December 28th. “This applies in particular to football games,” Scholz added.

Nightclubs and discos will also have to close.  As agreed at a previous round of talks earlier in December, the sale of fireworks for New Year’s Eve will be banned.

The measures agreed match those put forward in the draft proposals from Monday. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED – German leaders consider new restrictions to fight Omicron wave

Chancellor Scholz said the measures already put in place in Germany – such as the nationwide restrictions on the unvaccinated – have been successful, and that is shown by the falling number of Covid infections.

But he said said there was a new challenge in the form of the Omicron variant. 

Scholz said the aim was to “prepare Germany for the next corona wave”. 

He said he understood people who don’t want to hear anything more “about corona, about mutations and new virus variants. But we cannot and must not close our eyes to the wave that is about to come.”

Scholz added: “Even those who have been vaccinated twice and those who have recovered run a high risk of becoming infected.”

Earlier in the day, Germany’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI) had called for tougher measures, including contact restrictions and the closure of restaurants, bars and clubs, to be introduced “immediately”. 

But the government and state leaders have gone against this call. 

Scholz said past experience had shown events like Christmas and Easter were not proven to be pandemic drivers, and that is why restrictions would come into force after Christmas. 

He said people in Germany could enjoy the holiday season with caution and regular Covid testing.

However, states can choose to go further than the restrictions agreed at the federal level. The city state of Hamburg earlier on Tuesday announced it was to bring in Covid restrictions from December 24th. 

Scholz said vaccination “remains our goal” so that as many people as possible are protected from Omicron. He said Germany’s target was to reach a vaccination rate of 80 percent. As of Tuesday, 70.4 percent of the population in Germany is fully vaccinated.

The next round of federal and state talks is scheduled to take place at the beginning of January.

READ ALSO: Germany’s vaccine panel recommends booster shots after three months

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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