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EXPLAINED: Germany’s rules and exceptions for Covid quarantine

A few months back, the German Bundesrat signed off on a new law to change the duration of quarantine for people infected with Covid and their contacts. Here's everything you need to know about the latest rules and what to do if you think you might have the virus.

Covid testing station in Hamburg
People wait in line for a Covid test in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christian Charisius

What’s the difference between self-isolation and quarantine? 

Quarantine and self-isolation are often used interchangeably to describe the practice of avoiding contact with other people in order to reduce the spread of Covid. There is, however, an important difference.

Quarantine is a pre-emptive measure designed to shield people who aren’t ill from those who may be infectious. It normally occurs if there’s a chance you’ve been infected with Covid – say, if a close contact has got the virus – but you haven’t necessarily taken a test or developed symptoms. It’s also a key part of the government’s strategy for dealing with foreign travellers who may be infectious.

At the moment, unvaccinated travellers arriving from a ‘high risk’ area have to quarantine for up to ten days, with the option to end this after five days with a negative test. All travellers from a virus variant area must quarantine for two weeks, with no option of shortening it. 

Meanwhile, self-isolation is what happens if you have a proven infection and want to avoid transmitting the virus to other people. 

When do I have to quarantine? 

Aside from the travel situations listed above, you may need to quarantine if you have had contact with someone who has Covid during the window of time when they are infectious.

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the infectious period stretches from two days before the onset of symptoms to 14 days after symptoms appear. In asymptomatic cases, this window is two days before the test was taken and 14 days afterwards. 

If you receive a red alert on your CoronaWarn app because you’ve unknowingly had contact with an infected person, contact your GP or local health authority to find out the next steps. Generally they will tell you to do a PCR test to see if you have an infection.

If you’re a close contact person of someone who’s infected with Covid – i.e. your partner or child – get in touch with your local health authority to find out what your next steps should be. You can find out which health authority you need with this tool from the Robert Koch Institute. 

READ ALSO: What to do if you get a red alert on Germany’s Covid warning app

Are there any exceptions?

Yes. People who have a booster jab are exempted from the quarantine requirement if they’ve had contact with an infected person. The same applies to people who finished their full course of jabs in the past three months, or have recovered from Covid in the last three months. 

Everyone who tests positive for Covid must self-isolate, however, regardless of their vaccination or recovery status. 

When do I need to self-isolate?

Official government advice says that you should stay home if you have any cold symptoms (regardless of the type) or a positive self- or rapid-test result, though this isn’t mandated by law. 

Pop up Covid testing station

A man gets a test at a mobile Covid testing centre in Hannover. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

If you get a positive result on a rapid test, the best thing to do is get a PCR test at a state testing centre or with your GP. The Ministry of Health advise people to call ahead before turning up at the surgery to find out what the procedure is. Many GPs currently run special Covid drop-ins, so they may ask you to come at a specific time of day to avoid infecting other patients. 

If you need to contact someone outside the normal office hours of the practice, you can also call the medical on-call service under the nationwide standardised telephone number 116 117 or get in touch with your local public health office

Once you have a positive PCR test result, you will be required by law to self-isolate at home – unless you have a severe course of illness and need hospital treatment. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s new quarantine rules to be signed into law ‘by Saturday’

How long do I have to quarantine for?

This is one of the major changes that Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) has brought in. Previously, a number of different rules and durations applied depending on vaccination status and the virus variant in question. This has now been massively simplified

Whether you are in quarantine or self-isolating, the period of time you must avoid contact with others has now been standardised at 10 days. This can be shortened to seven days with a negative PCR or “high-quality” antigen test. 

What rules do I need to follow in quarantine? 

The main principle is, of course, to avoid contact with others as much as possible. This means staying at home, remaining in a separate room from the rest of your household and taking meals separately. When moving around the house (if you live with others), it’s also advisable to wear a mask. 

For deliveries of groceries or meals, you should aim for a contactless delivery in which the courier leaves your shopping or order outside your door. You should generally only leave the house for medical treatment (i.e. if you start feeling very ill and need to go to hospital) or your test on the seventh day. 

If you need advice, you can consult the online Covid Guide, call the medical advice line on 116 117 or get in touch with your doctor’s surgery. In an emergency, call 112. 

READ ALSO: Fact check: Does Germany really have the world’s strictest Covid measures?

What else do I need to know? 

Slightly different rules apply to children and health workers. For children and young people who’ve had contact with an infected person, quarantine can be ended after five days (as opposed to seven) with a negative antigen or PCR test. 

Meanwhile, medical and care workers who are self-isolating after a proven infection must be symptom-free for 48 hours in order to end their quarantine on the seventh day, as well as having a negative PCR test. 

When do the new rules come into force?

Germany’s 16 states are bringing in the changes now they have been signed off at the federal level, so they should be in force soon. Again, double check with your local authority if you have any questions. 

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Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany.