Germany to start lifting Covid restrictions

Germany will start rolling back most of its coronavirus curbs as the country's falling infection rate suggests the Omicron-fuelled wave has peaked, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Wednesday after talks with regional leaders.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz after the Covid summit on Wednesday.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz after the Covid summit on Wednesday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Reuters/Pool | Michele Tantussi

The three-step plan — which includes allowing unvaccinated people back into shops and restaurants — will see Germany reach its “freedom day” on March 20th, as media have dubbed it.

“We can look forward with more confidence than we have been able to in recent weeks,” Scholz said, adding that reopening of public life is now possible because the situation is improving. 

“After two years we deserve for things to be better again and it looks like that’s happening now,” he said.

But Scholz urged Germans to remain cautious and said they would have to keep wearing face masks. “The pandemic is not over,” he said.

North Rhine-Westphalia state premier Hendrik Wüst, who was also at the press conference, said there was no longer a threat of hospitals becoming overloaded.

He said it was a new phase in the pandemic but added: “We must remain vigilant.” 

Germany is the latest European nation to attempt a return to more normality, two years after the pandemic first emerged and upended people’s daily lives and routines.

READ MORE: What we know so far about Germany’s ‘freedom day’ plans

What is the plan?

As a first step, Germany will immediately drop a 10-person cap on private gatherings of people who are vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19. It means contact restrictions for vaccinated/recovered people will be abolished.

For the unvaccinated however, the rule that they can only meet with people from their household and two people outside their household will remain in place for another month.

Access to non-essential shops will be open to all again, without checks on whether customers are vaccinated against the virus or not. Up to this point there have been 2G rules in place, meaning access is only for the vaccinated/recovered – not the unvaccinated. Face masks will still be required, with high-protection FFP2 masks recommended.

People walk past a Covid test centre in Bremen.

People walk past a Covid test centre in Bremen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

From March 4th, restaurants, bars, cafes and hotels will be allowed to welcome unvaccinated people again, so long as they can provide a recent negative test — a system known as 3G in Germany. Up to this point, the hospitality industry in many states has been the ‘2G-plus rule’, where vaccinated and recovered people have to show proof of a booster or negative Covid test.

Meanwhile, also from March 4th, nightclubs will be allowed to open with the 2G-plus rule in place under the plans – excluding the unvaccinated.

The number of people allowed to attend large events including sports competitions, under 2G-plus rules, will be increased.

READ ALSO: German leaders thrash out plan on relaxing Covid curbs

In a final step, the remaining profound restrictions on social, cultural and economic life are to be gradually lifted by March 20th.

That includes ditching the requirement for employees to work from home whenever possible.

After that date, Europe’s top economy will rely on “basic protection measures”, Scholz and regional leaders agreed, “in particular the wearing of medical masks” in indoor public venues and on public transport.

Social distancing is also set to be maintained.

Germany following other countries

Germany recorded almost 220,000 new coronavirus cases over the past 24 hours, the Robert Koch Institute said Wednesday, and another 247 deaths.

While daily numbers remain high, Germany’s weekly infection rate has fallen in recent days, with experts saying the coronavirus wave fuelled by the highly contagious Omicron variant has peaked.

A sign for a shop in Schwerin announcing Covid rules.

A sign for a shop in Schwerin announcing Covid rules. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Danny Gohlke

Hospitals too have coped well, having been so far spared a surge in Omicron admissions.

Those elements, combined with a 75-percent vaccination rate among Germany’s population, have led to calls for the authorities to lift curbs and give
citizens back their freedoms.

The legislation that covers Germany’s current infection protection measures runs out on March 19th.

Britain, Ireland, Denmark and Norway have already dropped most of their Covid-19 restrictions.

The Netherlands, which imposed some of Europe’s toughest measures in December, plans to follow suit. Dutch bars, restaurants and nightclubs will go back to pre-pandemic opening hours and health passes will be scrapped by February 25th.

France aims to remove the last of its curbs in the coming weeks, including ending the requirement for face masks indoors by mid-March if the pandemic situation allows.

Germany too stressed that its path to a more normal daily life depended on the further evolution of the pandemic

Scholz and regional leaders also reaffirmed their support for a general vaccine mandate, a controversial topic that has divided Germany’s lawmakers
who would have to approve the measure.

“Mandatory vaccination is necessary for the winter,” said Scholz, adding that it has to be put in place so that “one new variant doesn’t mess everything up”.

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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