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KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

The German Health Ministry has put together a seven-point-plan to combat Covid in autumn. Here's a look at the proposals which are being discussed this week.

People sit outside in Hamburg's Schanzenviertel in April near a sign for Covid tests.
People sit outside in Hamburg's Schanzenviertel in April near a sign for Covid tests. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Axel Heimken

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, of the Social Democrats, is presenting Germany’s proposed Covid-19 autumn strategy this week to the states. In seven points, the plan outlines the federal government’s course of action in the expected autumn wave.

Three scenarios for autumn

According to the strategy paper, the government’s Covid Council of Experts sees three possible scenarios for the development of the pandemic in autumn.

– In the most favourable scenario, a less severe Covid variant than the currently widespread Omicron variant would become dominant in autumn. In this case, the Health Ministry says that stronger infection control measures would then no longer be necessary, or would only be needed to protect risk groups. 

– However, a moderately severe scenario is considered more likely, with a disease burden comparable to the current Omicron variants. In this outcome, infections and sick leave from work are expected to increase throughout the colder season. “Despite the moderate Covid-19 burden in critical care, work absences could again require area-wide transmission protection measures (masks and indoor distancing), as well as contact reduction measures on a regional basis,” the ministry’s strategy paper says.

READ ALSO: The Covid rules in place across German states

– In the worst-case scenario, “a new virus variant with a combination of increased immunity escape or transmissibility, and increased disease severity” would spread and become the dominant strain. In this case, the healthcare system would be severely burdened and protective measures such as mandatory masks and distance requirements could only be scaled back in spring 2023 at the earliest, the ministry says. 

But even in the moderately severe scenario, the Health Ministry estimates that without further measures Germany could see about 1,500 Covid deaths per week.

What’s the seven-point plan for Germany to get through autumn?

1. New vaccination campaign

The Health Ministry wants to purchase vaccines that are adapted to the Omicron variant from the manufacturers Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer, depending on the availability.

From September onwards, a fresh vaccination campaign is to be launched to promote the fourth vaccination (or second booster shot). The aim is to “close the vaccination gap and promote the fourth vaccination; especially in the older population group”.

A man receives his second booster vaccination against Covid in Springe. Lower Saxony in February.

A man receives his second booster vaccination against Covid in Springe. Lower Saxony in February. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Ole Spata

2. Testing strategy

People in Germany should have access to a PCR test after a positive rapid test. For symptomatic patients, a PCR test should also be possible in doctors’ surgeries without a prior rapid test, as is currently the case.

However, under the plans, there would no longer be free rapid tests – Bürgertests – for everyone. Instead, they would be restricted. Lauterbach wants to continue to offer free tests to people with Covid symptoms and for certain groups.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister wants to scrap free Covid tests for all

The proposals state that there should be preventive rapid tests in nursing homes and hospitals, and for children as well as for people coming into contact with lots of people, for instance before a large event. 

Furthermore, people who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons should also be entitled to free rapid tests. 

Lauterbach also wants to continue to make free rapid tests available to refugees fleeing war in Ukraine, as well as to people in Covid hotspots.

An easily accessible testing infrastructure, including in pharmacies, should be kept in place, says the paper. 

However, the federal government wants to pay the test centres less money per rapid antigen test and PCR test in future. “The total costs are to be reduced by about half,” the ministry writes in its strategy paper.

The amendment of the test regulation is to be completed by the end of June, the Health Ministry states. Free rapid tests are available in Germany until the end of this month.

A sign for a Covid test centre in Hamburg.

A sign for a Covid test centre in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christian Charisius

3. Optimisation of treatment

The German government’s Health Ministry wants to promote more treatment options for Covid.

“Since mortality can be significantly reduced by adequate and timely treatment, a treatment strategy (including for oral antiviral pill Paxlovid) is essential,” the ministry said, adding that effective drugs are not being used enough at the moment. The expert council has been asked to develop an appropriate treatment concept.

4. Protection of vulnerable groups

The Health Ministry considers a comprehensive care and safety concept for nursing facilities and care services essential in preparation for the expected autumn wave.

Lauterbach wants to see that all care facilities establish a ‘hygiene officer’, as is already the case in hospitals. For early treatment with medication, the appointment of a specialised care coordinator should also be put in place.

The aim is to keep nursing homes open for visits from members of the public. However, visiting and hygiene rules need to be established, says the paper. In this context, “the three effective protective measures ‘vaccination, testing, masks’ for staff, residents and visitors are to be enforced”.

5. Daily data

Lauterbach wants to order all hospitals to report the data that is necessary for pandemic management via the German Electronic Reporting and Information System for Infection Prevention (DEMIS) on a daily basis.

The reports should include intensive care capacity, the number of Covid patients in regular wards and intensive care units, and the numbers of free beds. According to Lauterbach’s plans, health care facilities that don’t comply with these reports would be sanctioned.

6. Protection plan for children and youths

The aim is to keep schools and nurseries open throughout autumn and winter. 

“Daycare centres and schools must remain open,” the strategy paper states. But in order to protect children and young people, a nationwide recommendation is to be developed by health and education ministers. Meanwhile, youngsters should also be a particular focus in the vaccination campaign.

An FFP2 mask hangs on a coat hanger at a school in Stuttgart.

An FFP2 mask hangs on a coat hanger at a school in Stuttgart. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

7. Changes to the Infection Protection Act

Germany’s Covid infection protection laws allow for rules such as mandatory masks. However, the law expires on September 23rd, and states have been pushing for the government to extend and strengthen it in case they need to put in place tougher measures, like contact restrictions.

READ ALSO: German states seek powers to enforce tougher Covid rules in autumn

According to the paper, the law is to be “further developed in good time before 23rd September 2022”. The Health Ministry said the findings of the expert council’s statement would be taken into account, as well as those of the expert commission evaluating the previous Covid protection measures, by the end of June.

However, a decision on exactly which measures the Infection Protection Act will contain after this date is to be made only after the evaluation reports have been presented on June 30th.

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German politicians clash over Covid rules for autumn

Germany's Health Minister is keen to introduce more Covid regulations in autumn - but there's widespread disagreement over what the rules should be.

German politicians clash over Covid rules for autumn

Negotiations are underway between Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) and Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP) over the Covid rules for autumn – but there looks set to be disagreements over whether stricter measures should be included.

While the liberal FDP are keen to minimise restrictions, Lauterbach wants states to be able to introduce tougher rules if, for example, a new dangerous variant emerges or the situation on intensive care wards gets worse.

“We must also be prepared for very severe variants,” he said. “This has to be a comprehensive set of instruments, not a narrow-gauge issue.”

He said school closures and entry restrictions like 2G (vaccinated and recovered) and 3G (vaccinated, recovered and tested) should not be ruled out.

READ ALSO: School closures in Germany ‘cannot be ruled out’, says minister 

However, despite Lauterbach’s cautious approach, there seems to be a growing consensus that restrictions should be less invasive in autumn and winter than in previous years – for example, by dispensing with entry restrictions to public venues. 

Politicians from the SPD and opposition CDU/CSU have both said in recent days that the focus should be on testing for the virus regularly rather than on renewed access restrictions such as 2G, 3G and 2G-plus. 

In an interview with ARD on Sunday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) said that the drastic measures of previous pandemic years would likely not be necessary in 2022. 

But the chancellor said he could imagine mandatory testing and masks forming a larger part of the pandemic protection strategy.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz ARD summer interview

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) speaks at an ARD summer interview on Sunday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

“I believe that one must already assume that the mask will start playing a greater role in autumn and winter than it does now,” he said.

However, school closures shouldn’t be on the table, he said. “And I also don’t think we need lockdowns like we’ve had in recent years.”

The Greens’ health expert Janosch Dahmen has previously said that the 3G, 2G and 2G-plus rules should be available if indoor masks and the vaccination campaign fail to have the desire effect on hospitalisations and infection numbers.

“Should we find that despite masks indoors and booster vaccinations, the infection dynamic is again increasing strongly, it may be that once again one also needs effective hygiene concepts including access controls,” Danosch told Welt.

He said that people should still be tested regardless of their vaccination status. 

The government has recently ended rapid tests for all and introduced a new system where most people have to pay €3 per test. However, there are exceptions in place for certain at-risk groups and people attending large public events.

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

Meanwhile the third and smallest partner in the governing traffic-light coalition, the FDP, continues to push for a pandemic management model based on individual responsibility rather than rules and regulations. 

“Personally, in the current phase of the pandemic, I would be in favour of clear and stringent recommendations instead of thoroughgoing legal obligations,” FDP health policy spokesman Andrew Ullmann told Welt.