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COVID-19 VACCINES

Bavaria to postpone vaccine mandate for health and care workers

Bavarian state premier Markus Söder (CSU) has said that the southern state won't implement the upcoming mandate for health and care workers in March.

Bavarian state premier Markus Söder
CSU leader and Bavarian state premier Markus Söder announces changes to Covid measures on Monday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

The vaccine mandate for workers in the health and care sectors is supposed to come into force on March 15th, but Bavaria has confirmed that it plans to postpone its implementation indefinitely.

The southern state will act “generously” with healthcare employees, Söder explained, “which amounts to a de facto suspension of enforcement”. 

Söder justified the separate Bavarian approach, which has yet to be worked out in detail, with the difficulties nursing homes have in finding staff.

The CSU leader said he was generally in favour of compulsory vaccination but felt that the “partial solution” to only apply the mandate to health workers was currently “of no help in the Omicron wave”.

Pushback to the partial vaccine mandate has been growing in Germany amid fears of mass resignations in the sector.

The mandate, which was passed by the government in December, stipulates that all workers in doctors’ surgeries, hospitals, nursing homes and other care facilities must show proof of full vaccination or a medical exemption by the middle of March. 

However, in recent days the German Nursing Council has issued warnings that the plans could exacerbate the staff shortages that are already felt in care homes across the country. 

At the start of February, the Federal Health Ministry hinted that local authorities could agree to let unvaccinated staff work after the mandate while making a decision on individual cases. 

Speaking to the Rheinische Post on Tuesday, Gerald Gaß, the head of the German Hospital Association, also suggested that the deadline for having full vaccination protection could be extended beyond March.

“We support the facility-based compulsory vaccination,” he said. “However, essential questions of further implementation are still unresolved, and therefore it may be necessary to adjust deadlines in the procedure.”

READ ALSO: German authorities signal reprieve for unvaccinated health workers

Aside from Bavaria, other states are rumoured to be unhappy about the timeline set for the introduction of the mandate, suggesting that other regional leaders could make similar announcements to Söder’s in the coming days and weeks.

Loosening restrictions

Alongside the vaccine mandate, Bavaria is also forging its own path in relaxing a number of Covid rules despite high incidences. 

At the end of January, a court decision led to the overturning of the ‘2G’ rule in non-essential shops in the state, meaning people can now enter these retail premises regardless of their vaccination or recovery status. 

Following a meeting with the CSU executive in Munich on Monday, Söder announced that the state would be introducing legislation as early as Tuesday to relax a number of other restrictions.

This includes scrapping the nighttime curfew for restaurants and increasing the seating capacity in cultural and sporting venues.

According to the Bavarian state leader, this will mean that theatres, cinemas and other cultural venues will be able to allocate up to 75 percent of their seats, while sporting events will be able to have a 50-percent audience capacity up to a maximum of 15,000 spectators. 

Previously, up to 10,000 spectators had been allowed at major sports events. 

Bayern München

A handful of spectators watch the Bayern München football team warm up ahead of a match on February 5th. Football matches in Bavaria will soon be able to welcome up to 15,000 spectators. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

In addition, services that require close physical contact such as hair salons and beauticians will be able to operate under a 3G policy. This will allow unvaccinated people to use a negative test for entry, rather than a vaccination or recovery certificate (known as 2G rules).

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Bavaria to ease some Covid restrictions

“We only have a third of the occupancy of intensive care beds that we had in the fourth wave of Delta – and that is the crucial thing,” Söder explained on ZDF’s Morgenmagazin programme. “Restrictions are right when the health system is extremely burdened, but this is currently not the case with Omicron.”

Söder had already argued for relaxations in national restrictions over the weekend.

“The consistent use of FFP2 masks allows us to remove some contact restrictions,” Söder wrote on Facebook on Sunday. “For this, the federal government must present a step-by-step plan.”

The prerequisite, he said, is that the clinics are not overburdened.

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COVID-19 RULES

How useful are Germany’s Covid restrictions?

Protective measures such as wearing a mask correctly and lockdowns can be effective in the fight against Covid, an expert commission in Germany has found. But many questions remain unanswered.

How useful are Germany's Covid restrictions?

The council of experts spent months evaluating the effects of measures imposed by the German government to help slow down the spread of Covid-19.

In the presentation of their findings on Friday, the panel said that measures like mask-wearing have had an effect, and can continue to be helpful against coronavirus.

The council said masks could be “an effective instrument”, but that there are limitations.

“An ill-fitting or not tight-fitting mask has a reduced to no effect,” said the council.

If masks are made compulsory again in the future, this should only apply indoors, because the risk of infection is higher there, the report said. 

However the experts added: “A general recommendation to wear FFP2 masks cannot be derived from the data so far.” Virologist Hendrick Streeck, who is on the panel, said that a “separate commission should look into this”.

READ ALSO: Germany’s current Covid mask rules 

On lockdowns, the experts said the usefulness of this measure depended on the infection situation. 

“When only a few people are infected, lockdown measures have a significantly stronger effect,” the report said. The longer a lockdown lasts, and the fewer people are willing to support the measure, the lesser the effect, experts added. 

Similar to to lockdown measures, contact tracing was also found to be effective in the early phases of the pandemic.

Members of the Covid expert panel Jutta Allmendinger, Hendrik Streeck, Harald Wilkoszewski and Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff speak on Friday.

Members of the Covid expert panel Jutta Allmendinger, Hendrik Streeck, Harald Wilkoszewski and Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff speak on Friday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Sommer

The report authors also said that the success of access restrictions, such as the 2G/3G measures (which mean people have to be vaccinated, recovered or tested to enter a public venue), depended on when people had had their jab or had been infected with Covid.

“The effect of 2G/3G measures is high with current variants in the first weeks after booster vaccination or recovery,” the report says. However, the protection against infection decreases significantly over time. 

In the current phase of the pandemic, it’s difficult to assess how useful these rules are, said the council. They recommended that in future, tests should be recommended as a condition of entry, regardless of vaccination status. 

Meanwhile, the evaluation concluded that risk communication in Germany was poorly used and that the information campaign to the public could have been better designed.

No statement on vaccinations

There are measures on which the committee did not make any statements, including vaccinations. Virologist Streek said that was the task of the Standing Commission on Vaccination (STIKO).

The experts were also weren’t clear on the controversial topic of school closures. Their effectiveness is “still open, despite biological plausibility and numerous studies”, the report said. The panel called for more studies on school closures.

READ ALSO: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

The researchers said that they struggled to evaluate some measures due to poor data, and urged authorities to adopt better methods and practices on that front. 

“We have a poor data situation,” said virologist Streeck. 

As Germany is preparing for possible Covid waves in autumn, the Health Ministry will be looking at the report closely.

But Greens’ health expert Janosch Dahmen said the findings were of limited significance.

“The report provides supplementary evidence, but by no means a conclusive assessment of the effect of Covid protection measures,” said Dahmen.

The completion of the report, which should have been published on June 30th, was delayed.

In the run-up, the head of the council of experts, Stefan Huster, dampened expectations for the report.

“Anyone expecting a list with a plus or a minus behind all the individual measures for ‘effective’ or ‘not effective’ will be disappointed,” Huster told Spiegel. “Our perspective is more fundamental and looks at the structures, in terms of being well prepared for a pandemic.”

The panel, which included scientists and researchers in various fields, was commissioned by the German government to carry out the research.

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