Health Minister urges German states not to relax Covid rules too quickly

Germany's Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has appealed to the leaders of the 16 states to follow the phasing-out plan for Covid restrictions - and not to drop measures too quickly.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach on Friday.
Health Minister Karl Lauterbach on Friday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

The federal and state governments agreed to phase-out far-reaching Covid measures by March 20th in a three-step plan. 

However, German states have in the past tended to go their own way when it comes to the pandemic. On Thursday it emerged that the state of Lower Saxony was to relax Covid testing in schools.

On Friday during an update on the Covid situation in Germany, Lauterbach talked to leaders of the 16 states directly. 

“My appeal to all state premiers is to not go beyond the agreed relaxations,” he said, adding that the step-by-step easing is the “maximum we can afford”.

Lauterbach said the peak of the Omicron wave in Germany had passed but a relapse is possible. 

He said loosening rules faster to make political gains “would be wrong”.

“We can afford moderate easing, but not excessive,” he said. “We are not really in safe waters yet.”

There is always the possibility of seeing an uptick in infections, he said. “If we open too early, not only will there be an extension of the wave, but the case numbers will go up again. It’s all on the edge.”|

On Wednesday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and state premiers agreed to gradually lift most restrictions by March 20th. The first step involves dropping contract restrictions for vaccinated/recovered people, and opening up shops to everyone without Covid pass checks. 

READ MORE: What you need to know about Germany’s Covid reopening plan

Lauterbach said that Germany has so far managed to get through the Delta and Omicron waves.

“We were able to protect the elderly quite well,” he said, adding that there had been a relatively low number of deaths per million inhabitants compared to other European countries.

“I continue to stand for this conservative approach,” he said, thanking German residents for being cautious.

“My thanks go to all those who have been fair and careful,” he said. “We owe the successes we have to them.”

Lauterbach predicted that Germany would see a new Covid wave in autumn. “We have to prepare for that,” he said.

He reiterated his support for a general vaccine mandate. 

Lauterbach said that head of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Lothar Wieler, was unable to attend the press conference due to “health reasons”.

RKI vice-president Lars Schaade, who attended in his place, said even though the peak of Omicron had passed, the situation was still tense in hospitals. 

“The peak for the intensive care units has not yet been reached,” he said.

Schaade said the risk of infection remains high, and vulnerable groups in particular were still at risk.

“The pandemic is not over yet,” said Schaade.

On Friday Germany reported 220,048 new Covid infections and 264 deaths within the latest 24-hour period.

The nationwide 7-day incidence fell to 1,371.7 infections per 100,000 people.

Member comments

  1. “We can afford moderate easing, but not excessive,” he said. “We are not really in safe waters yet.”

    Most are in safe water. Those who aren’t, they have made that choice themselves. End all masking and restrictions. Life must go on.

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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.