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COVID-19 TESTS

German doctors say Covid testing is too ‘expensive and bureaucratic’

Doctors in Germany have slammed the new Covid testing regime, which involves partly charging for rapid tests.

A positive Covid test at a test centre in Munich.
A positive Covid test at a test centre in Munich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

The German Health Ministry announced on Thursday that most people would have to pay a contribution rate of €3 to get a Covid rapid test, while they would remain free of charge for certain vulnerable groups.

But chairman of the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians (KBV), Andreas Gassen, called for an end to so-called Covid Bürgertests. 

“These nonsensical tests must be abolished,” Gassen told Bild newspaper. “They are far too expensive, the bureaucratic effort is huge and the epidemiological significance is zero.”

It is a “completely pointless exercise to test healthy people with (tests of) questionable quality for no reason,” Gassen said.

Gassen said, however, that PCR tests carried out on patients with symptoms are important to detect Covid infections.

If people in Germany have Covid symptoms, they can contact their GP who can arrange for a PCR test that is covered by health insurance. 

According to the new test regulation, which came into force on Thursday, the Bürgertests, which were previously free of charge for everyone, will now only be available for free to a limited extent.

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

For instance, people who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons can still get a free rapid test, as well as children up to five-years-old and some at-risk groups. 

Other people will be charged €3 per test, and under the new rules people have to state why they are getting the test.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said he hoped this would help combat fraud as well as cut down on the cost to the taxpayer. 

However, in a letter to Lauterbach, the heads of the 17 associations of statutory health insurance doctors said they “do not want to be responsible for making payments on invoices whose accuracy they cannot even begin to check”.

They said they “will no longer be able to bill and pay for the Bürgertests in the future”.

According to research by Spiegel, more than €1 billion was taken by fraudsters for Covid tests that never took place – or test centres that did not even exist.

READ ALSO: Germany starts charging for Covid tests 

On Thursday, Health Minister Lauterbach defended the new test regulation. He told broadcaster ZDF that he would have liked to keep the tests completely free of charge, “but we could no longer afford that”.

He said the additional bureaucratic effort for the tests is “manageable”.

Lauterbach also told RTL Direkt that the tests would now be more meaningful. “If everyone can just get tested as often as they want, without there being a reason for it, then too many tests will also be negative, or if they are positive, then often false positives.

“We have limited that so that the tests are more meaningful.”

In a tweet on Friday morning, Lauterbach said the Health Ministry was “already in constructive talks” with the the Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physician on the billing of tests. 

“The tests will remain, and will be invoiced correctly as of today,” he said, adding that they were “not pointless but help to prevent infected people from infecting others”.

A spokesperson for the Health Ministry told Bild: “The tests are not nonsensical, but save lives by breaking chains of infection. We assume that the KVs (associations) as corporations under public law, will continue to fulfil their mandate to bill and spot-check the test centres.”

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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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