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COVID-19 TESTS

What to know about Germany’s planned PCR test restrictions

According to a recent decision by the German federal and state governments, PCR tests will soon be restricted to high-risk groups and people who work with vulnerable people. But how does this affect things like quarantine rules and measuring infection rates? Here's what we know so far.

Covid test centre in Hamburg
A sign in Hamburg advertises free antigen tests and paid-for PCR tests to the public. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Bockwoldt

Why are tests being restricted? 

Germany’s infection rates have been spiralling over the past few weeks, hitting new all-time-highs on a daily basis. At the time of writing on Wednesday, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections was 940 per 100,000 people – a massive jump from the figure of 584 recorded just a week ago. 

In Berlin, the current Omicron hotspot, the 7-day incidence of infections is currently almost 1,800 per 100,000 residents. 

These high incidences are matched by record daily cases. On Wednesday, around 164,000 new Covid infections were reported within a day. But due to limited testing capacities and staffing issues at local health authorities, this could be an underestimation.

Though severe courses of Omicron are believed to be rarer than with the previous dominant variant Delta, experts say that current wave is nowhere near its potential peak. Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) believes that the country could record as many as 400,000 new cases a day by February. 

Against this backdrop, the government wants to restrict the availability of PCR tests in order to ensure that there are enough tests for people who need them. 

What’s the current testing capacity? 

According to recent data from the Association of Accredited Laboratories in Medicine (ALM), 2.4 million PCR tests were carried out in Germany last week. One in three tests were positive, they confirmed, and the proportion of positive samples is rising week-on-week.

Currently, the laboratories are working at around 95 percent capacity, meaning that just a small increase in infections or staff shortages could lead to testing centres becoming overwhelmed. 

The government has promised to expand these testing capacities to cope with the Omicron wave, but it also wants to introduce restrictions. 

OK, so can I still get a free PCR test? 

Currently, anyone with Covid symptoms, a positive antigen test or a red alert on their Corona Warn app can get one for free on their health insurance or by visiting a state testing centre. 

But this looks set to change. 

In future it will depend on your profession and your health. Only people who fall into a ‘risk’ category – i.e. someone who is elderly or has pre-existing condition – and those who work with vulnerable groups will be able to get a PCR test for free. 

Specifically, the new ordinance mentions staff “in hospitals, in surgeries, in nursing and in institutions for integration assistance”. 

Of course, if you’re happy to pay for one, you may be able to still get a PCR test with a private provider – these tend to cost upwards of €40 per test. 

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: How Germany will tackle latest phase of the Omicron wave

How does this affect quarantine and self-isolation rules?

That’s a tricky one to answer, since normally a PCR test is required to confirm an infection – but a potential rule-change could be on the cards. In future, people who don’t belong to a risk group could require two positive antigen test results to confirm a Covid infection and self-isolate. 

The same is likely to apply for proving a past Covid infection, though once again nothing concrete has emerged yet. 

Corona Warn App red alert

The Corona Warn App shows a red alert. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

In addition to rapid tests, the government is pinning its hopes on so-called Poc-NAAT tests to help bolster its testing capacity. There should soon be one million more of these tests – which are allegedly around 10 times more accurate than rapid tests – available per week. The use of these may be restricted to people with Covid symptoms, but again nothing firm has been worked out yet.  

In terms of getting released from self-isolation, the government is making a tweak to its recently changed quarantine rules. This will mean that people who work in hospitals and care homes will soon be able to use a rapid test to release themselves from quarantine after a week – just like everyone else. Previously, the government had required a PCR test for this group. 

READ ALSO: 

Can we still track Covid figures if we are restricting tests?

That’s a very good question. According to information obtained by the Redaktionsnetwerk Deutschland (RND), the Federal Ministry of Health is currently working with the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) on a new system for calculating infection rates.

Antigen test results are currently forwarded onto the RKI, but are only included in official statistics if accompanied by a positive PCR test result. 

“Whether and in what form antigen tests will be included in the statistics in future is currently being examined,” the RKI told RND.

In other words, it is possible that antigen test results will also be used to help calculate the Covid incidence in future – though the RKI would have to take into account the lower accuracy of these tests in its modelling. 

When are the changes coming into force?

That we don’t know yet. The Health Minister and his state colleagues are still working out the details at the moment so keep in mind that there could be room for slight changes in the finished legislation. 

It is then likely that states would adopt measures, and there can be variations among state regulations. 

Member comments

  1. >Can we still track Covid figures if we are restricting tests?

    That’s a very good question. According to information obtained by the Redaktionsnetwerk Deutschland (RND), the Federal Ministry of Health is currently working with the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) on a new system for calculating infection rates.

    They will just guess. And the numbers will always be going up at alarming rates. Even when they fall. They are just going up in reverse.

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COVID-19 TESTS

How long will Germany offer free rapid Covid-19 tests?

Germany has been offering Covid-19 antigen tests free of charge to everyone - except for a few weeks in October 2021 - for a year. But with restrictions lifting, how long will the system stay in place?

How long will Germany offer free rapid Covid-19 tests?

The Schnelltests – rapid tests – were brought in back in March 2021 as a way of monitoring infections while relaxing some Covid restrictions after the tougher winter 2020/21 shutdown that lasted months. The tests have been taxpayer-funded since then – except for a few weeks in October 2021 when the government decided to stop offering free tests to the general public (bar a few exceptions) in a bid to encourage more vaccinations.

However, since that was reversed, people in Germany – including tourists – have been able to quite easily get at least one antigen test per week, and sometimes more depending on the region. The tests are also known as Bürgertests (although they are for everyone, not just citizens).

They obviously help people to monitor their infection status especially before and after socialising so are a useful tool in the pandemic. 

They are also used to show when people can get a PCR test. Under the new prioritisation rules, people in at risk groups – like medical staff – can get a free PCR test if they have symptoms, while others have to show a positive antigen test result first. 

Why would we get rid of them then?

The German government last week voted through new slimmed down Covid legislation that means most rules – including the ‘G’ entry rules to places like restaurants and bars – can be lifted. Okay – German states have decided to extend these rules for around two weeks and they can have tougher rules again if the situation gets worse, but overall the message is clear – it’s time for Germany to try and let go of some of these measures. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The Covid measures across German states

The G rules mean that people need a test to do things in public. For instance, under 3G rules, unvaccinated people need to show proof of a negative test to go and eat in a restaurant. 

But without these restrictions in place, the need for them to be taxpayer funded becomes questionable. 

Another issue is that they are very costly. Up to October last year, they had cost the taxpayer €4 billion.

And last week Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said there are plans to raise health insurance contributions to address a massive deficit. Basically – the pandemic is costing – unsurprisingly – a lot.

Are there concrete plans to end free rapid tests?

Lots of people have been talking about when antigen tests will no longer be free because the current corona test regulation expires at the end of March. Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey told broadcaster rbb24 recently that the many testing centres using federal funding would likely not be sustainable, and told Berliners to “no longer expect to see so many test sites in the city”.

But this week it emerged that the government is looking to extend the free testing – at least for a couple of months. 

A spokesman from the Health Ministry told The Local that tests will continue to be paid for by the government, and that the Health Ministry is “preparing a corresponding ordinance”.

“This time, the ordinance will be valid until the end of May,” said the spokesman. 

According to a draft proposal, the Health Ministry says the extension of free testing is happening “in view of the continuing infection caused by the Omicron variant”.

However, a further extension is not planned, with hopes that the spring/summer season will lead to a reduction in virus transmission.

Furthermore, data from Germany and abroad suggests that infections with the Omicron variant are associated with a lower severity of illness.

“Therefore, a permanent validity of the prescription and the assumption of costs by the federal government and thus the taxpayer is no longer appropriate,” said the Ministry in a draft proposal. 

What does this mean for test centres?

As free testing will continue for a while longer, many will remain but some will likely close.

The Associations of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians (KVs) in Thuringia and Hesse have already announced that they would close their Covid test centres at the end of March, according to some reports.

READ ALSO: When will Germany’s Covid travel restrictions be lifted?

A sign for the waiting room at Covid test centre in Dresden.

A sign for the waiting room at Covid test centre in Dresden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Sebastian Kahnert

Does this affect PCR tests?

There are no plans to change the rules around PCR tests, which are considered the most reliable in detecting Covid infections. They are free of charge to people who need them or for people with a positive rapid test, although a doctor or health official has to give you the go ahead to get one. As we mentioned above, there are some prioritisation rules now that infections are so widespread in Germany. 

The government has set up this question and answer page on Covid testing which is helpful (although it’s in German).

What’s the alternative to free rapid tests?

It is likely that some test centres will remain open and offer rapid tests at a cost after May since we are still in the pandemic. At-home Covid tests are also relatively easy to find in supermarkets and drug stores. 

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