Germany to keep current Covid measures – but change testing strategy

Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Monday that Germany will stick to the current Covid restrictions for now, but PCR tests will be prioritised in future.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz after the federal-state meeting in Berlin.
Chancellor Olaf Schols holds a poster that says 'vaccination helps, even for everyone you love' after the federal-state meeting. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/POOL AP | Hannibal Hanschke

In view of the sharp rise in Covid infections throughout Germany, the federal and state governments want to maintain the current measures, Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) said on Monday after crunch talks with state leaders. 

Earlier in January, leaders tightened restrictions by bringing in the 2G-plus rules to the hospitality industry – meaning people who are vaccinated/recovered have to show proof of a booster shot or a negative Covid test to enter. They also shortened quarantine periods. 

“It is clear to all of us that the direction we have taken will help,” Scholz said after the online meeting.

Germany is seeing record 7-day incidence figures as the Omicron wave hits. 

On Monday, health authorities reported 63,393 Covid infections within the latest 24 hour period and the 7-day incidence stood at 840.3 cases per 100,000 people. 

Scholz said it is still not clear “whether we will have to reckon with a more dramatic situation” due to the Omicron wave, or if Germany will get through it without the need for more restrictions.

He said it was important “that we remain cautious” and “stay the course”. 

READ MORE: Is Germany set to ease or tighten Covid measures?

Change of test strategy

Scholz said the PCR Covid test strategy would be changing due to bottlenecks. 

“Testing must and will be done,” Scholz emphasised. However, due to a shortage of PCR tests – the current capacity is about 300,000 per day – they will be set aside in future for groups such as hospital or care workers and vulnerable people. 

It’s still unclear how this would work in practice. It could be, for instance, that people who receive a positive rapid test or a red alert on the Corona-Warn-app do will not need to take a PCR test for confirmation in future. 

Scholz said a plan for a better supply of PCR tests would also be worked out.

The Chancellor again urged people to get vaccinated, especially to protect vulnerable people and the elderly. He said the government is to relaunch its advertising campaign for jabs.

Just over 75 percent of the German population has received at least one jab. “That has to be much more,” he said, saying Germany was not doing as well as lots of other countries on the vaccination front. 

North Rhine-Westphalia’s state premier Hendrik Wüst, current chair of the so-called Minister-Presidents’ Conference, stressed there would be a two-pronged approach in the pandemic fight.

“We have to look both ways in the coming weeks,” said the CDU politician.

Ministers are to consider the possibility of tightening measures if needed as well as looking at steps for relaxing rules. 

Dispute over Lauterbach’s management

Wüst touched on another point of conflict from the federal-state discussions: the dispute over the seemingly unexpected change in the status of Covid recovered people, which was recently shortened from six months to three.

“Such changes need advance notice,” Wüst said, adding that people in Germany needed a “forward-looking pandemic policy”.

According to German magazine Spiegel, several state premiers complained about the last-minute change of course by Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD), and the problems in communication.

Wüst spoke of the need to continue working constructively and said he didn’t want to “assign blame” to anyone. Scholz said there was a “discussion based on solidarity”, and defended Lauterbach, calling him an “excellent minister”.

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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