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WORKING IN GERMANY

How Germany is preparing to end ‘working from home’ rule

Despite rising Covid infections, Germany's workplaces will be allowed to relax Covid restrictions from March 20th. Here's a look at what it will mean for you.

A person working from home.
A person working from home in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Finn Winkler

Germany reintroduced a ‘home office’ obligation in November 2021 to battle rising Covid rates.

Throughout winter, employers have had to offer employees the chance to work from home if operational reasons allowed it.

There are also strict rules for those people going into the office: they are expected to carry proof of Covid vaccination, recovery or a negative Covid test if they want to or have to work on-site (known as the 3G rule).

However, from March 20th, Germany’s far-reaching Covid measures – including workplace rules – are set to be lifted.

READ ALSO: Will Germany lift its Covid restrictions amid rising infections?

What happens after March 20th?

A new draft by the Labour Ministry gives us an idea of what will happen after this date. 

And it has emerged that despite the law being lifted, Covid safety plans will still have to be in place. 

The draft proposal states that employers should assess the risk posed by Covid-19 and define appropriate measures in a company safety concept.

According to the German government, employers should decide what kind of safeguards against infections they should have in place – such as offering employees regular Covid-19 tests, providing protective masks or asking employees to work from home.

An employee in Heimstetten takes a Covid-19 test.

An employee in Heimstetten, Bavaria, takes a Covid-19 test. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Matthias Balk

Companies will also have to decide for themselves on the basic measures in the workplace, such as distance requirements.

The draft states that employers should take into account the regional incidence of infection. 

Labour Minister Hubertus Heil said: “We must continue to work together to ensure that the workplace does not become a place of infection. Therefore, basic protective measures should be maintained here as well.”

The regulation is set to be decided on by the federal cabinet on Wednesday.

What’s the reaction?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, bosses have welcomed more flexible rules and the planned lifting of the obligation to work from home. However, they said safeguard options were important. 

“The flexible measures now planned for companies are necessary and sensible,” said Rainer Dulger, president of the employers’ association.

“Even after the abolition of the legal 3G access regulation and the removal of the obligation to work remotely, businesses will continue to maintain effective protective measures.”

The draft regulation states there will be no legal obligation for people to work from home, but that employers have the option to allow ‘home office’. 

Dulger said that remote work would continue to be used in companies without the law in place.

And he took a swipe at the Labour Ministry’s plans to bring in laws that will mean employers will have to allow employees to work from home in future – unless remote working is impossible for logistical reasons calling the proposals “pointless”.

The German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), meanwhile, has warned against neglecting protection against Covid infections in the workplace.

“Occupational health and safety must not become a private matter for employees from the end of March,” said DGB Executive Board member Anja Piel to the newspapers of the Funke Mediengruppe.

“The pandemic is simply not over yet and that is why home office – where it is possible – remains a useful instrument to limit contacts and therefore the risk of infection,” she said.

Employees “must continue to be protected at the workplace” with masks indoors and by close monitoring of the incidence of infection through regular tests, said Piel, adding: “The costs for this should be borne by the employers.”

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COVID-19 RULES

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

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