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EXPLAINED: Why Germany is in a bitter row over Covid measures

From Sunday, almost all Covid restrictions across Germany will be lifted unless states declare themselves a 'hotspot'. But a row has been brewing for weeks over the government's new Covid laws. Here's what you need to know.

People walk in the centre of Stralsund, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.
People walk in the centre of Stralsund, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The German state has declared itself a Covid hotspot. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

What’s happening?

March 20th was meant to be Germany’s version of ‘freedom day’, when far-reaching Covid restrictions were to be lifted. 

But most German states chose to extend the current restrictions – like the ‘G’ Covid entry pass system to get into public places like restaurants – until early April under a special two-week transition period.

That grace period finishes on April 2nd, meaning that German states will have to get rid of Covid restrictions because the legal basis will be gone. A handful of state ministers pushed for a four-week extension at the health ministers’ conference on Monday but were unable to secure a majority for the move. 

That means that from Saturday, April 2nd, masks should no longer be mandatory in shops and restaurants (but will remain in local public transport and places like hospitals), and people generally won’t have to show proof of vaccination, recovery or a Covid test to go into public places (the 3G rule).

There is, however, a special mechanism in the new Covid Infection Protection Law called the ‘hotspot’ regulation, and if state parliaments believe it’s a critical situation and vote this in, then tougher Covid measures can stay in place. 

However, many people say the hotspot regulation is confusing and not clearly defined – cue a lot of aggro among the states. 

Who’s unhappy?

Several states say that legally binding criteria in order to declare a state or region as a Covid hotspot is lacking. But Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, of the Social Democrats, made it clear on Monday that the latest version of the Infection Protection Act would not be changed again.

Health policy spokesman for the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, Tino Sorge, told the Augsburger Allgemeine: “The central terms of the hotspot regulation should have been defined in the law, with clear thresholds and transparent criteria.”

Sorge said that major Covid rules being imposed cannot be linked to “vague words – especially not across the board for an entire federal state”.

A person walks in Berlin holding an FFP2 mask.

A person walks in Berlin holding an FFP2 mask. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Fernando Gutierrez-Juarez

State health Ministers on Monday held a meeting in a last ditch attempt to try and get a clearer statement from the federal government on the hotspot rule.

“Health Minister Lauterbach and Justice Minister Buschmann failed miserably at this,” said Sorge, who as a member of the CDU forms part of the opposition. 

READ ALSO: German health ministers want Covid rules ‘extended until May’

Yet it’s not just opposition politicians who have raised concerns about the rule. 

Chief Executive of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities, Gerd Landsberg, also sees problems.

“Regrettably, the legislator has not defined any criteria under which conditions a hotspot regulation can be considered,” he told the Rheinische Post.

“Already from the point of view of time, it might be questionable whether the state parliaments could enact individual regulations for individual regions – for example during holiday periods,” Landsberg said.

“That is why we expect the states to agree on a regulation that is as uniform as possible, so that an entire area or large parts can also be declared a hotspot as a precaution.”

Chief executive of the German Association of Cities, Helmut Dedy, told the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland (RND) that the new Infection Protection Act curtails the toolbox for states and cities.

“We expect that the law will soon have to be corrected again. It was not a brilliant piece of work by the traffic light (coalition government made up of the SPD, Greens and FDP),” he said.

Other people are worried about Germany returning to a complicated patchwork of different measures – something we’ve seen throughout the pandemic that has caused major confusion. 

Chairman of the German Hospital Association, Gerald Gaß, said he feared a lack of acceptance among the population if there are lots of different rules across states.

How is a hotspot defined?

The thresholds for when a region is a Covid hotspot are not quantified in the law. But the general prerequisite is that there is a threat of hospital capacities getting overloaded.

Health Minister Lauterbach recently named specific criteria to measures this: if hospitals could no longer provide emergency care – because of too many Covid patients or staff shortages, if they had to cancel scheduled procedures or transfer patients to other hospitals – as well as if specifications on a minimum presence of nursing staff could not be met.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister defends lifting of Covid measures

According to Robert Koch Institute (RKI) data, no federal state currently has a 7-day incidence of less than 1,000 Covid infections per 100,000 people.

The lowest incidence is currently in Berlin. Four federal states have an incidence of more than 2,000: Thuringia, Bavaria, Saarland and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

At 2,280.6, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania currently has the highest number of new infections per week among 100,000 inhabitants. That’s why the state parliament in Schwerin declared the entire state a hotspot five days ago. It means that measures such as mandatory masks in public indoor areas and certain access restrictions will remain in force until at least April 27th.

Across Germany on Tuesday, 237,352 Covid infections and 307 deaths were reported within the latest 24-hour period.

The 7-day incidence was 1,703.3 infections per 100,000 residents. 

READ ALSO: Will Germany’s Covid infections ease up in time for Easter?

Is everyone happy about Covid restrictions being lifted in general?

Some say that more measures should be staying in place, especially because of the current wave of Covid infections.

After the talks between state health ministers on Monday, Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek (CSU) said: “Everyone agreed on the point: the obligation to wear masks indoors would actually still make sense at the current time – and nationwide.”

He said the fact that a mask obligation in all indoor public places cannot be extended was “unsurpassable in terms of absurdity”.

The federal government argues that a nationwide mask requirement is not possible because there is no threat of a nationwide overload of the health system.

Lauterbach has repeatedly called on states to impose more extensive measures in regional hotspots with critical situations. “We are losing time. From my point of view, action must be taken now,” said the SPD politician.

He said states should look to Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania as an example of how to work with the new law. 

Several cabinets are meeting this Tuesday and will need to make decisions. As well as Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the city-state of Hamburg plans to also declare itself a Covid hotspot. Other states have said they currently see no legal grounds for introducing the hotspot rule. 

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Do people in Germany still have to wear Covid masks on planes?

With the EU changing its Covid recommendations for flights, there is some confusion around whether people boarding a plane in Germany will still need to wear a mask. Here's what we know so far.

Do people in Germany still have to wear Covid masks on planes?

As of Monday, the aviation safety agency EASA and the EU health authority ECDC no longer recommend mandatory Covid masks in airports and on planes.

However, if masks are compulsory at the point of departure or destination, this should continue to apply in aircraft as well, they say.

So, what does this mean for passengers boarding flights in Germany? At the moment, not very much at all. 

In Germany, the Infection Protection Act still stipulates that masks have to be worn on long-distance trains and planes. Masks are also compulsory on local public transport.

The previous weeks have seen Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP) come out in favour of scrapping compulsory masks – especially on flights.

But so far, nothing concrete has been done to change the Infection Protection Act, which is due to expire on September 23rd. 

READ ALSO: German politicians row over lifting mandatory Covid mask rule

What are the current rules on flights? 

According to the Federal Ministry of Health, masks are compulsory on all flights taking off or landing in Germany.

FFP2 or medical masks must be worn when boarding and disembarking and throughout the flight, though they can be removed when eating and drinking.

Children under the age of six are exempt from the mask-wearing requirement. 

The ministry has argued that the obligation to wear masks also complies with the new EU recommendations. 

What are the rules acros the EU? 

In general, the relaxed EU recommendation does not mean that masks are no longer compulsory on all flights. However, many countries have kept this measure in place as a simple way to reduce infection. 

Europe’s largest low-cost airline, Ryanair, published a list of 14 EU countries in which national laws continue to require the wearing of face masks to prevent the spread of Covid.

Besides Germany, popular tourist destinations such as Spain, Greece, Portugal, Italy and France are included on the list. 

In other EU countries, the airline said it would be dropping mandatory masks on flights, adding that it “welcomed” the relaxed recommendations from the EU health authorities.  

READ ALSO: Will Germany soon get rid of mandatory face masks on public transport?