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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Germany’s top court approves Covid vaccine mandate for health workers

Germany's highest court ruled on Thursday that the mandatory Covid-19 vaccination rule for employees in health and care sectors is constitutional.

Germany's top court approves Covid vaccine mandate for health workers

From mid-March this year, health and care workers in Germany have had to prove they are vaccinated against Covid-19 or recently recovered. 

If they can’t provide this proof they face fines or even bans from working – however it is unclear how widely it has been enforced due to concerns over staff shortages. 

On Thursday the constitutional court rejected complaints against the partial vaccination mandate, saying the protection of vulnerable people outweighs any infringement of employees’ rights.

The law covers employees in hospitals as well as care homes, clinics, emergency services, doctors’ surgeries and facilities for people with disabilities. 

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s Covid vaccine mandate for health staff

The court acknowledged that the law meant employees who don’t want to be vaccinated would have to deal with professional consequences or change their job – or even profession. 

However, the obligation to be vaccinated against Covid as a health or care worker is constitutionally justified and proportionate, according to the judges.

They said that’s because compulsory vaccination in this case is about protecting elderly and sick people. These groups are at increased risk of becoming infected by Covid-19 and are more likely to become seriously ill or die.

The protection of vulnerable groups is of “paramount importance”, the resolution states.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach welcomed Thursday’s ruling and thanked health care facilities who have already implemented the vaccine mandate. He said: “The state is obliged to protect vulnerable groups”.

Course of the pandemic doesn’t change things

According to the ruling, the development of the pandemic in Germany is no reason to change course. 

The court based its decision on the assessment of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) and medical societies, stating that it could still be assumed that a vaccination would protect against the Omicron variant.

It’s true that the protection of vaccines decreases over time, and most courses of disease are milder with the Omicron variant. Nevertheless, the institution-based vaccination obligation remains constitutional because, according to the experts, the higher risk for old and sick people has not fundamentally changed.

A vaccine mandate that would have affected more of the population in Germany was rejected by the Bundestag in a vote held in April

MPs had been allowed to vote with their conscience on the issue rather than having to vote along party lines.