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COVID-19 RULES

Germany should ‘return to normality’ on March 20th, says MP

The head of the FDP parliamentary group wants Covid protection measures in Germany to be dropped by March when the legislation is due to expire.

A government ad for vaccination in Cologne.
A government ad for vaccination in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Oliver Berg

“On March 20th, Germany should return to normality, because that’s when the (Covid-19) measures expire, unless the Bundestag actively decides to extend them,” FDP parliamentary group leader Christian Dürr told Germany’s Funke Mediengruppe on Thursday. 

“The yardstick for corona restrictions must always be the burden on the health system,” Dürr said. “Fortunately, this overload no longer exists.”

Dürr said clinics in Germany were coping well with the Omicron wave. 

“Therefore, we should start today to withdraw the restrictions on freedom, step by step, and phase them out by March 19th – more than a month from now.”

It comes after Gerald Gaß, head of the German Hospital Association, said he “no longer” expected the German health care system to be overloaded due to the Omicron variant. 

READ ALSO: German hospitals ‘won’t get overwhelmed in Omicron wave’

At the end of 2021, the Bundestag decided not to extend the so-called epidemic emergency of national importance. The parliament instead amended the Infection Protection Act, which allowed strict Covid-19 measures to continue. This legislation is in place until March 19th, 2022. 

The law can be extended by three months if voted on by the German Bundestag.

Dürr said that the vast majority of people in Germany had supported the tough restrictions, and politicians should not leave them in place for longer than necessary. 

Under the current rules, unvaccinated people are barred from most public places, and vaccinated and recovered people need to show proof of a Covid test or booster to access many venues. Clubs are also closed. 

The FDP's Christian Dürr gives a statement at his party's digital parliamentary group meeting.

The FDP’s Christian Dürr gives a statement at his party’s digital parliamentary group meeting. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the health system is in danger of becoming overloaded in future, the Bundestag can act at short notice, Dürr said, adding that new regulations for the mask requirement to continue in places like public transport may be needed after the March deadline. 

Earlier on Thursday, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said he expected a debate on relaxations at the next Covid summit between the federal and state governments on February 16th, but warned that Germany should “not relax too quickly”.

“We still have rising case numbers, the likes of which we have never had before,” he said, adding that easing restrictions too quickly could see the pandemic prolonged, and result in more deaths due to the lower vaccination rate among older people.

On Thursday Germany reported 247,862 Covid infections and 238 deaths within the latest 24 hour period. The 7-day incidence stood at 1,465.4 infections per 100,000 residents.

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COVID-19 ALERT

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

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