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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 man working from home.
A man working from home. 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 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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