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Is Germany still changing its Covid self-isolation rules?

Germany will not move to voluntary Covid isolation from May as previously announced just two days ago. So what is happening - and will there be any rule changes after all?

People wearing maks walk outside a Covid test centre in Hanover
People wearing maks walk outside a Covid test centre in Hanover. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

What is going on?

It’s a good question. In scenes reminiscent of former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s infamous U-turn on an Easter lockdown in 2021, current Health Minister Karl Lauterbach backtracked on his own proposal to introduce voluntary isolation after a Covid infection.

Following consultations with state health ministers on Monday, Lauterbach had said that form May 1st, people who test positive for Covid-19 in Germany would be “strongly advised” to isolate themselves away from other people for five days – but would no longer receive an official state order to do so. An exception applied to health and care workers who still faced a mandatory quarantine. 

But Lauterbach said during a talk show on Tuesday night – and then again in the early hours of Wednesday – that Covid isolation would not be voluntary as planned and would instead remain an obligation.

READ ALSO: ‘Mistake’: German Health Minister makes U-turn on voluntary Covid isolation

He said allowing people to choose whether they isolate or not “would be wrong”.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks to Health Minister Karl Lauterbach before the cabinet meeting at the Chancellery on Wednesday.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks to Health Minister Karl Lauterbach before the cabinet meeting at the Chancellery on Wednesday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/X02762 Reuters Pool | Lisi Niesner

“This is where I made a mistake,” he added.

Speaking later on Wednesday, Lauterbach said he made the U-turn after after gathering information and exchanging views with the government’s Covid expert council.

“I also followed the public discussion, spoke with doctors and the parliamentary group – and was no longer convinced myself of the original decision,” he said.

He added that the change sent “the wrong signal” – that isolating was no longer necessary. “That would be completely wrong and would trivialise the pandemic,” the minister said.

Why was Covid isolation going to become voluntary?

When people get a positive Covid test in Germany, they are told by their local health authorities that they have to enter an isolation period which currently lasts 10 days. There is an option to shorten it with a negative result from a test taken at the earliest on the seventh day.

READ ALSO: What to do if you test positive for Covid in Germany

Lauterbach said this week that the rules were changing because it is too difficult for German health authorities to control isolation periods due to the sheer number of Covid infections. He hinted that it was a pointless bureaucratic exercise. 

“The work is almost only bureaucratic documentation (and) has hardly any influence on case numbers,” he said on Twitter. “Therefore, personal responsibility is enough here. What helps are masks and vaccinations.”

Various state ministers backed up this plan, saying that the new phase of the pandemic called for more personal responsibility rather than intervention from the state. But there was pushback from patients’ rights groups who said vulnerable people would be put at risk.

So will there be any changes to Germany’s Covid isolation rules?

Yes. The Covid isolation period will be reduced to five days as proposed from May 1st, but it will be mandatory for all. That means health authorities will continue to order the measure to everyone, not just medical staff as previously proposed. 

However, mandatory quarantine for contact persons of people who get Covid will be scrapped. Instead close contacts of people with Covid will receive a strong recommendation to isolate for five days. 

What’s the reaction?

Unsurprisingly, the opposition has jumped on Lauterbach’s U-turn. 

Friedrich Merz, leader of the conservative Christian Democrats, called Lauterbach “short-sighted” for making the announcement and then retracting it less than two days later. 

Meanwhile, Sepp Müller, chairperson of the Union (CDU/CSU) faction in the Bundestag, said: “Lauterbach is putting people’s health at risk with his confused actions.”

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Germany starts charging for Covid-19 antigen tests

Most people in Germany will have to pay for a Covid antigen test from Thursday as part of a new testing strategy from the government, which is also aimed at combatting fraudulent activity.

Germany starts charging for Covid-19 antigen tests

Taxpayer-funded free rapid tests – known as Bürgertests – were free to everyone in test centres and pharmacies.

But from Thursday, only some people, including those who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons, will be allowed to get a free Schnelltest, under the new regulations from the Health Ministry. 

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) and Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) agreed last week to significantly restrict free rapid tests. 

They had been free of charge to the population – with a brief interruption last autumn – since spring of 2021.

But according to Lauterbach, the cost of the taxpayer-funded tests had reached around €1 billion per month.

“The truth is – unfortunately, we can’t afford that in the tight budget situation that awaits us in autumn,” Lauterbach said last week.

There are also concerns over fraud. The government has reportedly spent more than €10.5 billion on free Bürgertests during the pandemic, with suspected fraud of up to €1.5 billion.

“There is always the possibility of fraud,” Lauterbach told broadcaster ZDF on Thursday. However, test centres will now have to document why a test is being carried out, meaning it will be possible to verify via random checks, he said.

For those not entitled to free access, antigen tests will now be charged at a contribution rate of €3. 

READ ALSO: Germany to charge €3 for rapid tests 

Who will continue to receive free tests?

People who can’t be vaccinated for medial reasons, such as women in the first trimester of pregnancy, will still be entitled to free tests. 

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

Furthermore, household members of people who get 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.

Visitors and people receiving treatment or residents in inpatient or outpatient hospital facilities can also get free tests. 

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 tests in their facilities, says the Health Ministry.

“Family carers and people with disabilities and their carers will also continue to be able to be tested free of charge,” said Lauterbach. “In doing so, we are expanding the circle of those eligible, but retaining the criterion for doing so: we protect at-risk groups through free Bürgertests.”

Who has to pay €3?

The €3 tests are aimed at people who are attending a possible risk event such as concerts or theatre visits. This is to help prevent so-called superspreader cases, where lots of people can get the virus at once.

A €3 test is also to be charged to people who get a red warning on the Corona-Warn app.

Anyone who wants a test now has to state the purpose of the test. 

People who have Covid symptoms should contact their doctor or health care provider who can arrange for a test that is covered by the patient’s health insurance. 

The government also plans to reduce 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.

Among the population, the new regulations have been met with a divided response. Around 47 percent of Germans find the price of €3 reasonable, while 43 percent do not, according to a survey by the opinion research institute YouGov. Ten percent did not give an answer.

It comes as Covid infections have risen dramatically. The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) said the nationwide 7-day incidence on Thursday was 668.6 infections per 100,000 people.

However, experts assume that the number of infections are vastly underreported.