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COVID-19 TESTS

How long will Germany offer free rapid Covid-19 tests?

Germany has been offering Covid-19 antigen tests free of charge to everyone - except for a few weeks in October 2021 - for a year. But with restrictions lifting, how long will the system stay in place?

A sign for free rapid tests in Braunschweig.
A sign for free rapid tests in Braunschweig. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Moritz Frankenberg

The Schnelltests – rapid tests – were brought in back in March 2021 as a way of monitoring infections while relaxing some Covid restrictions after the tougher winter 2020/21 shutdown that lasted months. The tests have been taxpayer-funded since then – except for a few weeks in October 2021 when the government decided to stop offering free tests to the general public (bar a few exceptions) in a bid to encourage more vaccinations.

However, since that was reversed, people in Germany – including tourists – have been able to quite easily get at least one antigen test per week, and sometimes more depending on the region. The tests are also known as Bürgertests (although they are for everyone, not just citizens).

They obviously help people to monitor their infection status especially before and after socialising so are a useful tool in the pandemic. 

They are also used to show when people can get a PCR test. Under the new prioritisation rules, people in at risk groups – like medical staff – can get a free PCR test if they have symptoms, while others have to show a positive antigen test result first. 

Why would we get rid of them then?

The German government last week voted through new slimmed down Covid legislation that means most rules – including the ‘G’ entry rules to places like restaurants and bars – can be lifted. Okay – German states have decided to extend these rules for around two weeks and they can have tougher rules again if the situation gets worse, but overall the message is clear – it’s time for Germany to try and let go of some of these measures. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The Covid measures across German states

The G rules mean that people need a test to do things in public. For instance, under 3G rules, unvaccinated people need to show proof of a negative test to go and eat in a restaurant. 

But without these restrictions in place, the need for them to be taxpayer funded becomes questionable. 

Another issue is that they are very costly. Up to October last year, they had cost the taxpayer €4 billion.

And last week Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said there are plans to raise health insurance contributions to address a massive deficit. Basically – the pandemic is costing – unsurprisingly – a lot.

Are there concrete plans to end free rapid tests?

Lots of people have been talking about when antigen tests will no longer be free because the current corona test regulation expires at the end of March. Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey told broadcaster rbb24 recently that the many testing centres using federal funding would likely not be sustainable, and told Berliners to “no longer expect to see so many test sites in the city”.

But this week it emerged that the government is looking to extend the free testing – at least for a couple of months. 

A spokesman from the Health Ministry told The Local that tests will continue to be paid for by the government, and that the Health Ministry is “preparing a corresponding ordinance”.

“This time, the ordinance will be valid until the end of May,” said the spokesman. 

According to a draft proposal, the Health Ministry says the extension of free testing is happening “in view of the continuing infection caused by the Omicron variant”.

However, a further extension is not planned, with hopes that the spring/summer season will lead to a reduction in virus transmission.

Furthermore, data from Germany and abroad suggests that infections with the Omicron variant are associated with a lower severity of illness.

“Therefore, a permanent validity of the prescription and the assumption of costs by the federal government and thus the taxpayer is no longer appropriate,” said the Ministry in a draft proposal. 

What does this mean for test centres?

As free testing will continue for a while longer, many will remain but some will likely close.

The Associations of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians (KVs) in Thuringia and Hesse have already announced that they would close their Covid test centres at the end of March, according to some reports.

READ ALSO: When will Germany’s Covid travel restrictions be lifted?

A sign for the waiting room at Covid test centre in Dresden.

A sign for the waiting room at Covid test centre in Dresden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Sebastian Kahnert

Does this affect PCR tests?

There are no plans to change the rules around PCR tests, which are considered the most reliable in detecting Covid infections. They are free of charge to people who need them or for people with a positive rapid test, although a doctor or health official has to give you the go ahead to get one. As we mentioned above, there are some prioritisation rules now that infections are so widespread in Germany. 

The government has set up this question and answer page on Covid testing which is helpful (although it’s in German).

What’s the alternative to free rapid tests?

It is likely that some test centres will remain open and offer rapid tests at a cost after May since we are still in the pandemic. At-home Covid tests are also relatively easy to find in supermarkets and drug stores. 

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COVID-19 TESTS

EXPLAINED: The new rules on getting a Covid test in Germany

Most people now have to pay to get an antigen test in Germany. Here's what you should know about the new rules.

EXPLAINED: The new rules on getting a Covid test in Germany

What’s happening? 

Until this point everyone in Germany was entitled to at least one free Covid-19 rapid test per week by trained staff. It included a test result certificate which could be delivered to the person by email or in paper. 

But the free-for-all offer has now been “suspended”, according to the Federal Ministry of Health.

The revised testing regulation with the new rules took effect on Thursday June 30th. 

READ ALSO: Germany starts charging for Covid tests 

Who will continue to get a free test?

The Health Ministry says the entitlement to so-called Bürgertests is intended to protect particularly vulnerable people.

These include people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons – like women in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Others to receive free access to tests include family carers and people with disabilities, as well as their carers.

Furthermore, household members of people who have Covid, children up to the age of five, and residents and visitors of nursing homes, institutions for people with disabilities and clinics do not have to pay for a rapid test.

A person gets a Covid test swab in Oldenburg.

A person gets a Covid test swab in Oldenburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

Visitors and people receiving treatment or residents in inpatient or outpatient hospital facilities can also get free tests, as well as people taking part in Covid clinical trials. 

People who need proof that they are negative after a Covid-19 infection, so they can go back to work for example, can still get tested for free.

Employees of nursing homes and hospitals should continue to take Covid rapid tests in their facilities, says the Health Ministry.

How do people prove they are entitled to a free test?

Anyone who wants to claim free testing must identify themselves to the testing agency and provide proof. For example, a birth certificate or passport (for children), and the maternity pass for pregnant women.

Those who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons must present an official medical certificate from their doctor. 

For those getting a test due to a household member being positive, they have to show the positive PCR test of their housemate and proof of matching residential address. 

Who has to pay €3 to get a test?

The €3 tests are intended for private use, including for visits to family celebrations, concerts or another “indoor event”, such as the theatre. 

This is aimed at helping prevent so-called superspreader events, where many people get Covid at once.

A €3 test should also be granted to anyone who gets a red Covid warning on their Corona Warn app, or who plans to meet someone – or people – over the age of 60 or people with a pre-existing illness or disability.

Do you need to provide proof for this?

Yes. The Health Ministry says: “This can be done, for example, by showing an admission ticket to an event, the Corona Warning app or, in the case of contact with high-risk patients, a self-disclosure form or a digital registration process.”

The person getting the test signs a document stating why they are getting the test. 

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said on Thursday that documenting why tests were taking place would help stop fraud as random checks can be carried out. 

What other documents are required?

As before, an official photo ID has to be presented, such as a passport.

Will this be a bit confusing in practice?

It does appear to be a little unclear on how things will work. Plus many people in Germany, and tourists, won’t know about the change in rules since it came about so quickly. 

There was also some confusion on the point of visits to elderly or people with previous illnesses. People who visit relatives in clinics or nursing homes can still get a test free of charge. However, the regulation also states that those who want to meet with over-60s or those with previous illnesses must pay an additional €3 for a test.

A spokesman from the Health Ministry said the difference is whether the meeting is in an institution (where the test is free) or if it’s a private meeting (where a €3 payment is due).

READ ALSO: Germany’s planned changes to Covid vaccination status 

Why is the test offer being restricted?

It was getting too expensive. According to Lauterbach, Bürgertests cost €1 billion per month. The government has reportedly spent more than €10.5 billion on free antigen tests during the pandemic, with suspected fraud of up to €1.5 billion.

The government is also reducing the amount that is given to the test centres per antigen test – from the current €11.50 to €9.50.

A total of €6.50 from the federal government will be added to the €3 to reimburse centres.

Will any German states take over the €3 contribution payment for a test?

Lauterbach previously referred to the possibility that federal states could take over the €3 payment for residents, or groups of residents.

The states, however, quickly signalled that there were no plans to do so.

The €3 would not be replaced “in any of the states”, said Baden-Wuerttemberg’s health minister Manne Lucha (Greens) on Tuesday.

What happens if you get Covid symptoms?

People with Covid symptoms should contact their GP. Doctors in Germany can order a PCR test as part of medical treatment if Covid-19, which will be covered by the patient’s health insurance. 

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