Should Germany get rid of Covid mandatory isolation?

Some politicians in Germany are pushing to get rid of mandatory isolation for those who get Covid-19.

An employee at a German pharmacy with a negative Covid test.
An employee at a German pharmacy with a negative Covid test. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

Politicians from the pro-business Free Democrats, who are in the coalition government with the Social Democrats and the Greens, say they want a debate on ending the Covid isolation requirement in Germany. 

“From my point of view, it is overdue, both epidemiologically and for reasons of personal responsibility, to leave this decision to the people again – as other European countries have done for a long time,” FDP vice president Wolfgang Kubicki said. 

FDP Secretary General Bijan Djir-Sarai expressed similar views, and warned of staffing problems due to isolation obligations.

“We will face enormous challenges in system-relevant areas if we send masses of people who have tested positive without symptoms into isolation,” he told the Rheinische Post on Monday.

The rules on isolation differ from state to state, but the general requirement is that those who test positive for Covid have to go into isolation at home and avoid all contact with people outside the household. The isolation period lasts at least five days or a maximum of 10 days.

In some states, and for hospital and care workers, a negative test is required to end the isolation period early.

READ ALSO: Germany sets out new Covid isolation rules

Over the weekend, Andreas Gassen, chairman of the board of the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians, spoke out in favour of ending all Covid isolation and quarantine obligations.

These should be “lifted until further notice – this would alleviate the staff shortage in many places”, Gassen told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung. Those who are sick should stay at home, while those who feel healthy go to work, he said.

READ ALSO: The Covid rules in place across German states

However, not everyone is on board.

The Greens’ health politician Saskia Weishaupt said the firm rules should stay in place.

When people go to work, they should not be exposed to the risk of contracting the disease, she told the Funke Mediengruppe.

Meanwhile, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) made it clear over the weekend that he did not back the proposal. 

“Infected people must stay at home. Otherwise, not only will the number of (Covid) cases increase even more, but the workplace itself will become a safety risk,” he wrote on Twitter.

Germany has seen a spike in the number of Covid infections recently, fuelled by the highly transmissible Omicron BA.5 subtype.

READ ALSO: Germany’s summer Covid wave set to get worse, say experts

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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