Germany’s RKI urges contact restrictions and closures to combat Omicron

Germany's Robert Koch Institute (RKI) released new recommendations on Tuesday for measures to slow the spread of the Omicron wave of Covid-19, urging "maximum" contact restrictions and essential travel only.

People walk in Düsseldorf.
People walk in Düsseldorf on Saturday. Germany's RKI is recommending tougher Covid restrictions. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Malte Krudewig

The RKI said Germany was at the beginning of a new Covid wave fuelled by the more transmissible Omicron variant.

Health experts in the public agency for disease control recommend measures to be taken “immediately” and into next year.

“Although the Omicron wave is still in the early stages in Germany, a look at other countries shows that that this variant is likely to lead to a wave of infections,” said the RKI, adding that the variant is “easily transmissible” even in fully vaccinated and recovered people.

The RKI estimates that Omicron will become the dominant variant “by the beginning of January 2022” and estimates tens of thousands of infections every day. Currently, it is doubling in Germany roughly every three days. 

Germany’s Covid infections caused by the Delta wave are currently declining but the number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths still remain at a high level.

Health experts fear that if many people are infected around the same time, hospitals will be overburdened and critical services, like police, the fire service and public transport, will fail due to mass sickness. 

The course of the Omicron wave depends on people’s behaviour over the festive season, said experts. 

READ ALSO: German health agency raises Covid risk level for the vaccinated

What is the RKI recommending?

They urged politicians to bring in these measures now until at least mid January:

– Maximum contact restrictions

– Maximum infection prevention measures

– Maximum speed in vaccinating the population (initial and booster vaccinations)

– Reduction of travel to “what is absolutely necessary”

– Strong communication to the public so people understand the measures

Going into more detail, the RKI recommended closing all bars, clubs, restaurants (except for takeaway) and indoor sports, as well as cancelling all large events. 

They also said Covid health pass rules should be tightened. The RKI said the 2G rule should continue for shops (only vaccinated and recovered people can enter) and that the 3G rule should be in place for supermarkets (where you have to be vaccinated, recovered or tested). 

They also recommended extra testing for some other parts of public life (the 2G-plus or 3G-plus rule). Experts also called on a ban on singing indoors (for example in church). 

The RKI said that putting these measures in place now will help medical staff focus on carrying out jabs and booster shots.

What is the government planning?

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and German state leaders are deciding new Covid measures on Tuesday.

They want to close nightclubs and discos, as well as limit gatherings to 10 people (for the vaccinated and recovered) from December 28th. 

However, the final resolution from the meeting may be different. 

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

Some state leaders want tougher restrictions. 

Baden-Württemberg’s state premier Winfried Kretschmann (Greens) called on the Bundestag to implement the “epidemic situation of national importance” once again after it was allowed to expire on November 25th.

It was a special clause introduced at the start of the pandemic that allowed federal and state governments to order measures quickly without the approval of parliaments.

But Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP) warned against extreme restrictions. 

“We must do everything to prevent another lockdown,” he said.

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German states clash with government over new Covid protection laws

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Thursday that the pandemic was "not over yet" but that the country was entering a "new phase". However, states have raised concerns about the plan to drop almost all Covid measures.

German states clash with government over new Covid protection laws

The Chancellor held talks with German state leaders on Thursday to discuss the pandemic, as well as the war in Ukraine and how Germany can better manage and support refugees having to flee their homes.

It came as the German government gets set to drop almost all Covid measures on March 20th. Basic restrictions – like mandatory masks on public transport and in health settings will remain – as well as a ‘hotspot’ mechanism for bringing in tougher rules in areas where Covid cases build up.

The new slimmed-down Infection Protection Act is set to pass through the Bundestag and Bundesrat on Friday.

READ ALSO: The key Covid rule changes this week in Germany

But German states feel that they have been ignored and fear that the law changes planned by the coalition government will leave them with barely any options for combating the pandemic.

North Rhine-Westphalia premier Hendrik Wüst, who spoke by video link because he is in Covid isolation due to an infection, said the draft law was “legally uncertain and practically unworkable”.

Scholz defended the new law for Covid measures against criticism, saying it was a “legal basis on which to build for the future”.

However, Scholz also praised the “constructive discussion” with state premiers.

He said he was concerned about the high Covid infections. But the Chancellor said the situation in hospitals and intensive care units was not developing dramatically, and the Omicron variant resulted in less severe illness generally. Once again, he appealed to citizens to get vaccinated.

READ ALSO: How worried should we be about Germany’s rising Covid infections?

Earlier in the day, the Bundestag exchanged blows for the first time over a possible vaccine mandate in Germany. 

MPs debated two bills and three motions for and against compulsory vaccination.

Several speakers warned of new restrictions on freedom in autumn without compulsory vaccination, while others said they were strictly against vaccine mandates.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) told MPs: “We can end the pandemic for Germany for the first time with compulsory vaccination. We’ll be in the same place in autumn as we are now if we don’t seize this unique opportunity together.”

Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) said: “People in this country are fed up. Let’s finally get this pandemic over with, get rid of the virus and then return to freedom.”

Opposing views across parliamentary groups became clear.

Tabea Rößner, of the Green Party, said: “Many are afraid, some report strong reactions to vaccination.”

Left-wing politician Gregor Gysi said: “I was for it (vaccine mandate) with measles because that eradicated the disease, the (Covid) vaccine can’t do that here.”

MPs will vote on the mandate in April. 

Support for refugees

After the talks on Thursday Scholz said that the federal and state governments were united and wanted to support refugees from Ukraine in Germany. 

He admitted that “this will be a big, big challenge”.

Scholz said it was now a matter of providing help quickly and without complications, to make sure that refugees can work and that children can go to school “immediately”.

READ ALSO: German states call for more support in managing refugee crisis

Scholz also praised the “overwhelming culture of willingness to help” in Germany. According to the Interior Ministry 187,428 refugees have registered in Germany from Ukraine so far – but the real number is probably much higher.

Scholz pledged more funding to districts across Germany to help support people. A working group is to draw up a plan on this front by April 7th.

The Chancellor also emphasised that the invasion of Ukraine was “Putin’s war”. He said it was completely unacceptable for there to be any hostility against Russian people.