German politicians row over lifting mandatory Covid mask rule

There's been strong pushback to the German Transport Minister's call to drop the mask obligation on planes and public transport in Germany.

A person holds onto a face mask in Dresden.
A person holds onto a face mask in Dresden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Kahnert

Some countries – including neighbouring France – are ending the rule to wear face coverings on public transport, and make it voluntary. 

But Germany is caught in a row about whether to follow this path – or keep mandatory face masks in place. 

Transport Minister Volker Wissing, of the Free Democrats (FDP), said on Thursday that he supported getting rid of the mandatory requirement to wear a face mask on buses, trains and trams throughout Germany – as well on planes. 

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

But some believe this is the wrong move. 

Green party health expert Janosch Dahmen said: “It would be unreasonable to lift the mask requirement in public transport already.

“We need protective masks on trains and buses for a safe summer. The pandemic may be out of some people’s minds, but it has not disappeared from our lives.”

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, of the Social Democrats (SPD), tweeted: “With up to 150 corona deaths every day and the incidence still very high, there is no scope for dispensing with masks in public transport. Harmonisation makes sense when the pandemic is over. That is not yet the case.”

Wissing’s call to change infection protection laws and make face masks voluntary came after two EU agencies earlier this week said they recommended the lifting of mandatory masks on air travel throughout EU countries from May 16th. 

However, if masks are compulsory in public transport at the point of departure or destination, the rule continues to apply in aircraft as well. This means that people will still have to wear masks on planes coming or going to Germany.

Dahmen said he could not see a contradiction between European and German rules. “The European recommendations explicitly include a national mask obligation,” he said, adding that the current pandemic situation gave no reason for changes to the Infection Protection Act.

In view of the new EU recommendations, Wissing said that a uniform approach should be taken throughout Europe, and that the mask requirement should be lifted, especially in air travel. 

The nationwide obligation to wear masks in planes and long-distance transport is written into the Infection Protection Act which is valid until at least September 23rd. Masks are also compulsory on local bus and train services, however this rule is ordered by the states. 

‘Wrong signals at the wrong time’

In response to a question, the Transport Ministry said it would now approach the Health Ministry with a view to the possibility of suspending the obligation to wear masks in planes and long-distance trains by means of a government regulation with the approval of the Bundesrat.

The transport industry is in favour of an end to compulsory masks since the rule no longer applies at events, or in restaurants and shops across Germany. 

The National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians (KBV) is also in favour of ending the mask requirement. Andreas Gassen, head of the KBV, said that there was high immunity in the population, and for many people the pandemic is “over”.

But the chairperson of state transport ministers, Bremen’s Senator Maike Schaefer (Greens), slammed Wissing’s initiative as being the “wrong signals at the wrong time”.

She said the upcoming €9 monthly travel ticket could also lead to overcrowding on certain routes this summer. “To abolish compulsory masking at that time, I think, is counterproductive,” said Schaefer.

Germany on Friday reported 68,999 Covid infections within the latest 24 hour period and 164 deaths. But experts believe many cases are going underreported. Nearly 76 percent of the population has had two Covid jabs, and around 60 percent have received their booster vaccination.

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Traffic warnings issued in Germany ahead of public holiday

People travelling in Germany this week have been warned to expect heavy traffic and busy airports.

Traffic warnings issued in Germany ahead of public holiday

Germany has a nationwide public holiday on May 26th to mark the Christian holiday Ascension Day (Christi Himmelfahrt), which is also known as Father’s Day or Men’s Day.

Many people also book the Friday off work – known as a Brückentag (bridge day) – to make their annual leave go further. 

It comes after a disappointing start to the year when some public holidays fell on the weekend, meaning that most people didn’t get the day off in Germany. 

READ ALSO: German politicians call for ‘lost’ public holidays to be replaced

Meanwhile, with Covid restrictions being eased in most countries around the world, people in Germany are now desperate to make the most of their time off. 

It means that roads and airports are likely to be much busier – from Wednesday afternoon onwards. 

Germany’s biggest car club, the ADAC, warned that traffic jams were expected. 

Where are the worst traffic jams expected?

The ADAC expects the first peak of congestion on Wednesday from around 1pm to 7pm. It will also be very busy on Saturday and Sunday, while experts believe Friday will be fairly quiet on the roads. 

Roadworks might also pose a problem – the ADAC says more than 1,000 construction work sites are in place across Germany right now. 

The ADAC said the biggest traffic jams were expected around Hamburg, Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Munich, as well as on the following motorways:

A1 Cologne – Bremen – Hamburg – Lübeck

A2 Berlin – Hanover – Dortmund

A3 Cologne – Frankfurt – Würzburg – Nuremberg

A4 Kirchheimer Dreieck – Erfurt – Chemnitz – Dresden

A5 Hattenbacher Dreieck – Darmstadt – Karlsruhe

A6 Heilbronn – Nuremberg

A7 Hamburg – Hanover and A7 Würzburg – Füssen/Reutte

A7 Hamburg – Flensburg

A8 Stuttgart – Munich – Salzburg

A9 Munich – Nuremberg

A10 Berlin Ring

A61 Mönchengladbach – Koblenz – Ludwigshafen

A81 Stuttgart – Singen

A93 Inntaldreieck – Kufstein

A95/B2 Munich – Garmisch-Partenkirchen

A99 Munich Autobahnring

Ascension Day is also a public holiday in Austria and Switzerland. 

Road experts say there could similarly be some busy roads in these countries which could affect Germans crossing the borders. 

“This will be particularly noticeable on the access roads to the leisure regions in the lower road network of the Alpine countries – for example, in Austria the Carinthian lakes, the Salzkammergut, Lake Neusiedl and the recreational areas of the Swiss cantons of Ticino and Valais,” said the ADAC.

“Slightly longer driving times should also be planned for the Tauern, Fernpass, Brenner, Rhine Valley and Gotthard routes.”

READ ALSO: Why Germans are being warned not to cycle drunk on Father’s Day

What about airports?

German airports are also expecting a rush of passengers this week. 

From Wednesday until Sunday this week, around 77,000 passengers per day are expected at Berlin’s BER airport. On regular weekdays, between 55,000 and 65,000 passengers is the norm, while around 70,000 travellers pass through BER on the peak days of Friday and Sunday.

Passengers are urged to be at the airport at least two hours before check-in, and to keep an eye for any updates or changes to their trip from their airline.