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COVID-19 RULES

Could Germany see a ‘patchwork’ of rules with new Covid plan?

Germany has put together a plan to tackle the spread of Covid from October until spring next year. But while some proposals have been welcomed, there are fears it could result in a patchwork of rules around the country.

A passenger stands in Stuttgart with a face mask.
A passenger stands in Stuttgart with a face mask. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd Weißbrod

Masks will remain mandatory in some places, but states will have the power to take tougher Covid measures, under proposals from the German Health and Justice Ministries for getting through the autumn and winter.

On Wednesday, the coalition pledged a graduated plan under the new Infection Protection Act, which will be in force from October 1st until April 7th next year. 

It envisages mandatory masks in air and long-distance transport, as well as clinics, nationwide. But federal states will be able to choose themselves whether to introduce further measures like mandatory masks on public and regional transport, like buses and trams. 

Under the plans, there is also the option of making restrictions even tougher if the situation becomes critical. But lockdowns and school closures have been ruled out. 

READ ALSO Masks and no lockdowns: Germany’s new Covid plan from autumn to Easter

The proposals have been met with a divided response so far, with experts calling for more clarity. 

The German Medical Association called for uniform measures throughout the country if hospitals or critical services get overloaded, rather than different regulations in states. 

“It’s important that in future, uniform measures are taken throughout Germany if certain clearly defined criteria are met,” Klaus Reinhardt, President of the Medical Association, told the Funke Mediengruppe on Thursday.

He said the plans for autumn and winter “unfortunately still remain vague”.

The German Hospital Association said it wasn’t clear when the health system would be classed as being overburdened.

“It’s not apparent how the data situation will be seriously improved,” said the chairman of the board, Gerald Gaß.

However, Reinhardt said he was pleased that the plans had “finally been formulated with consideration for our children”.

The German Teachers’ Association said it was important that states would be able to impose mandatory masks on older pupils if they need to, but questioned why masks couldn’t also be introduced in younger children.

Under the proposals, only pupils from the fifth school year onwards can be asked to wear a mask if the Covid situation worsens.

Teachers’ representatives also raised concerns about Germany turning into a “patchwork quilt” due to regions being able to take different measures.

Meanwhile, the German Association of Cities said there were still a lot of unanswered questions, including whether free Covid tests would return. The government recently restricted free Covid testing because they said it was too expensive. 

“Will the free Bürgertests for all be introduced again in autumn? What will happen with the facility-based compulsory vaccination? We expect answers from the federal government on this very soon,” said chief executive Helmut Dedy.

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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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