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COVID-19 TESTS

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.

A test centre in Leipzig.
A test centre in Leipzig. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hendrik Schmidt

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.

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COVID-19 RULES

Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

Bavaria's state premier Markus Söder (CSU) has announced plans for a "prompt" end to mandatory masks on buses and trains.

Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

If infection levels and hospitalisations remain low, the end of the mask-wearing rule could come as soon as December or January.

“We are convinced that the mask requirement in public transport could also be phased out either in mid-December or early next year, if the numbers remain reasonably stable and there are no new mutations,” Söder explained on Monday, following a meeting with the CSU executive committee. 

A decision on when to end the measure would be made “promptly”, he added.

The CSU politician had said last week that the sinking infection rates meant that compulsory masks were no longer appropriate and that the mandate could be changed to a recommendation. 

No set date for change

The latest version of Bavaria’s Infection Protection Act – which lays out an obligation to wear masks on public transport as one of the few remaining Covid rules – is currently due to expire on December 9th.

State ministers could decide whether to let obligatory masks on buses and trains lapse on this date as early as next week, or they could decide to initially extend the legislation and set an alternative date for ending the rule.

Regardless of their decision, FFP2 masks will continue to be mandatory on long-distance public transport until at least April next year, when the nationwide Infection Protection Act is due to expire.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

Speaking to Süddeutsche Zeitung on Monday after the meeting of the Council of Ministers, Florian Herrmann (CSU), head of the State Chancellery, confirmed that Covid-19 had been discussed in passing.

However, no decisions or discussions were made on how to proceed after the expiry of the regulation, he said.

According to Herrmann, the fact that Covid was no longer the “dominant topic” in the cabinet under “enormous tension” shows “that we are returning to normality” in a gradual transition from pandemic to endemic. 

As of Wednesday, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 people stood at 108 in Bavaria, down from 111 the previous day. However, experts have cast doubt on how meaningful the incidence is in light of the fact that fewer people are taking tests.

Nevertheless, the 133 hospital beds occupied by Covid patients in the Free State falls well below the 600 threshold for a ‘red alert’. With Omicron causing less severe courses of illness than previous variants, politicians have increasingly focussed on hospitalisation statistics to gauge the severity of the situation.

‘A risk-benefit trade-off’

Bavaria is the second federal state to announce plans to relax its mask-wearing rules in recent weeks.

On November 14th, the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein announced that it would be ending obligatory FFP2 masks on public transport and urged other states to do the same. From January 2023, masks on public transport will only be recommended rather than mandated for passengers on local buses and trains. 

However, the Federal Ministry of Health has urged states not to loosen their rules too quickly.

Given that infection rates are likely to spike again in winter, “there’s no basis for loosening restrictions”, said Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD).

Physicians are also split on whether an end to masks on public transport is appropriate.

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

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) speaks at the German Hospital Day in Düsseldorf on November 14th. Lauterbach is against the lifting of the mask-wearing rule. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Christoph Spinner, a virologist at the University Hospital in Munich, told Süddeutsche Zeitung he believed it was time to put the decision on mask-wearing back into the hands of individuals.

“Why not? The incidences are low, the danger of Covid-19 has dropped significantly and mortality has also decreased,” he said. 

But the Bavarian General Practitioners’ Association spoke out against the move, arguing that – unlike a trip to a restaurant or cinema – people often have no choice but to travel on public transport.

“If the obligation to wear a mask in public transport is maintained, this will help to protect against a Covid infection on the way to work by bus or train – especially in view of the discontinuation of the obligation to isolate in the event of a Covid infection,” they explained.

Bavaria is one of four states to have recently ended mandatory isolation for people who test positive for Covid. Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein both scrapped their isolation mandate last week, while Hesse removed its obligation on Tuesday. 

READ ALSO: Four German states call for end to mandatory Covid isolation

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