OPINION: Germany’s autumn Covid rules are a giant mess beyond parody

As other European countries appear to have left the stress of strict Covid rules long behind them, Germany is gearing up to introduce a new and even more complicated patchwork of measures in autumn. Brian Melican asks whether, at this stage, the restrictions are really proportionate to the risks.

People enjoy Oktoberfest in Munich in 2019.
People enjoy Oktoberfest in Munich in 2019 - the last time the festival took place properly before Covid. Brian Melican doesn't think Germany's Covid plan for autumn 2022 is proportionate. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Felix Hörhager

In just under a month’s time, on September 23rd, the current Infection Protect Act will expire – only to be replaced with an even more complicated and pointless successor. Yes: the new act made it through cabinet on Wednesday and looks likely to pass Bundestag in a few weeks. But it will only actually enter into force on October 1st, leaving a potentially 7-day gap in which what happens is unclear, but will – this being Germany – probably involve excessive amounts of mask-wearing and lateral-flow-testing.

READ ALSO: What we know so far about Germany’s autumn Covid rules

Whatever happens, though, Munich will, after a two-year hiatus, be celebrating a bumper Oktoberfest, from September 17th to October 3rd. Over the course of these two weeks, an estimated six million people will crowd into the tents and beer gardens of the city’s Theresienwiese, consuming an average of 1.13 litres of beer with 0.08 roast chickens per head and exchanging quadrillions of virus particles every minute. All of which will be legal under the current set of legislation – and will remain legal under the replacement.

What probably won’t be legal (who knows quite yet with the confusing set of rules proposed), is to use the Munich U-Bahn without wearing a mask on your way to and from Oktoberfest. At the same time, statistically speaking, you are quite likely to be among the 92 percent of people in Germany who already, as of late July, carried antibodies against Sars-COV2 (see this study by the RKI) – a figure which, if the number of people I know who have just had Covid is anything to go by, is likely to have increased further to almost 100 percent by mid-September. This makes a mockery of the term ‘Infection Protection Act’ – and also explains why hospitalisations from Covid are low, intensive care bed occupation even lower, and deaths half of what they were six months back.

People wear FFP2 masks on the U-Bahn in Munich in December 2021.

People wear FFP2 masks on the U-Bahn in Munich in December 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

This is all very good news, and forms part of a Europe-wide success story based on an unprecedented vaccine delivery programme and the fortuitously mild Omicron variant. In all of our neighbouring countries, it has been taken as such. Denmark, for instance, has now been living (and living very well) without any form of Covid restrictions for nearly six months. Later in spring, every country around us that had not already done so quietly confined coronavirus to the realm of regrettable endemic illness. Has the sky fallen in on them? No. Are their health services on their knees? No. Are ours? Also no. Yet in Germany, we are still intent on replacing one set of vestigial busy-body public health rules with another set of even more convoluted ones. 

READ ALSO: Opinion – Why Germany can’t break out of its Covid rules rut

‘Beyond parody’

Without going too deeply into the details of what the tripartite coalition has planned (neither you nor I have all day, and said details are still subject to change), suffice to say that the new Infection Protection Act is so stereotypically German that it’s beyond parody. 

Federalism and buck-passing? Check! As ever, the 16 states will be able to more or less set their own rules while demanding that Berlin does the dirty work. Fiendishly complex systems destined to fail on first contact with reality? You bet! As of September, states will be able to reintroduce compulsory mask-wearing indoors – but can make exceptions for people who have just had a booster jab or get a negative test result (but only in restaurants, bars, and other leisure settings); the same might apply in hospitals and care homes, but definitely not in primary schools (although maybe in secondary schools); states may also choose to drop mask requirements on local transport, but they will be ramped up to FFP2 on all intercity train services and flights (unless, of course, you’re flying Olaf Airways and have Frequent Habeck Status…)

If, however, the situation deteriorates (as defined by criteria yet to be announced) these exceptions will all be removed and we go nuclear (i.e. outdoor mask-wearing). This is a phase shift which, to complete our round of German Bullshit Bingo, is explained/further muddied by a niche automotive analogy: summer tires (“Go about your business as usual, but don’t forget your FFP2.”) vs. winter tires (“Oh no…”), with an optional escalation to snow chains (“We’re all doomed! Doomed, I tells ye!”). Want to laugh-cry? Try Karl Lauterbach’s overly complicated PowerPoint slide (pictures below in a tweet) or Marco Buschmann’s half-hearted attempt at defending the madness yesterday morning on Deutschlandfunk.

In short, the new law pours all of our quirks and foibles into a form so perfectly potty it looks like satirist Jan Böhmermann brought Harald Schmidt out of retirement before teaming up with the ghost of that great observer of German national neuroses, Loriot, to poke fun at us.

Which begs the question: why are we about to do this? And why are we going to do it in such a patently crazy, borderline unenforceable way?

The two sides of Germany’s Covid rules

First: why are we doing this? The short answer to that is: Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD). For whatever reason (and I don’t think it’s fair to speculate too much about personality traits), Lauterbach is more afraid of what Covid might do to the population – and less afraid of the corrosive societal effect of lasting restrictions – than other ministers with his brief in comparable countries. It could turn out, of course, that Lauterbach is right: if the “killer variant” he prophesises does surface this autumn, I and a lot of others will be doing public penance.

My hunch is, though, that the German Health Minister doesn’t have a direct line to a secret source of Covid wisdom and can’t see into the future: his change of position on whether everyone should get a fourth jab or just the over-60s proves as much. Instead, he and a few others around him (notably the Green’s health spokesman Janosch Dahmen) are probably seeing exactly the same facts and figures as their counterparts in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden… (as well as many German virologists and epidemiologists in favour of scrapping restrictions), but drawing wildly different conclusions.

Second: if we’re doing this, why are we doing it in such a complicated way? The short answer to that is: Federal Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP). He and most of his party – the (emphasis on) Free Democrats – are not in favour of endless restrictions without justification. And, as it turns out, neither is our constitution. And I for one am pleased that, after being first ignored and then laxly interpreted for over two years, our cherished Grundgesetz is now once again being taken seriously.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) and Marco Buschmann (FDP), fist bump at the press conference on Wednesday.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) and Marco Buschmann (FDP), fist bump at the press conference on Wednesday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

One of its guiding principles is that curbs to the freedoms it guarantees must be a) proportionate and b) appropriate: as Buschmann has argued, forcing people triply-vaccinated against and twice recovered from Covid to cover their mouth and nose when entering a restaurant is, at this stage of proceedings, no longer proportionate nor appropriate, and so states will be allowed (read: encouraged) to keep restrictions light here. Why the same doesn’t apply to trains or planes is anyone’s guess – here’s mine: political horse-trading to reach a compromise; or perhaps a shrewd FDP move to finally see off restrictions by making them so inconsistent that they represent easy prey for complaints to the Constitutional Court this autumn. 

Ah yes, this autumn. What a wonderful place Germany will be, with the lights switched off in high streets and those who can no longer afford to heat their flats being held up on the doors to bars as they desperately search for the long-neglected CovPass app so that they can at least gain access to the warm fug without having to run back home for their grubby FFP2… So if you weren’t yet planning to head to Munich for the Oktoberfest this year, my advice would to hightail it down there for one last blow-out before things get really unpleasant.

Member comments

  1. With all due respect, I understand people’s frustrations with the pandemic measures, but I beg you to look at this situation from the perspective of an immunocompromised individual. At the present moment they cannot go anywhere safely! This is because people do not want to do simple little things to protect them from severe sickness or death, like wearing a mask for example. Wearing a mask is so easy! Also, can we all agree that just cutting the death rate in half IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH. There are still 100s of people dying every week. These people do not deserve their fate. We all should be willing to make small sacrifices like mask wearing in public transit / airplanes / unavoidable public places if it means we can save just 1 person from dying.

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OPINION: Germany’s unfair school system entrenches inequality

Pupils in Germany are funnelled off into different schools at the age of 11, which map out whether they go down an academic or vocational route. But this model is unfair and disastrous for social mobility, says James Jackson.

OPINION: Germany's unfair school system entrenches inequality

This month, 11-year-olds in Germany will receive a letter which will influence their future more than perhaps anything else. The “letter of recommendation” from their teacher decides more than anything else whether the children go on to study academic subjects or more practical ones. 

Perhaps the biggest German success story in recent years, the BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, might not have happened due to the inequalities of opportunity in this system. Uğur Şahin, a scientific genius to whom the human race will be eternally grateful, wasn’t recommended to Gymnasium. His teacher didn’t recognise his obvious intelligence and his parents didn’t know how to argue against this. If it wasn’t due to the intervention of a German neighbour, it is quite possible the BioNTech vaccine wouldn’t have happened. 

When this story came out, a hashtag about being a good neighbour trended on German social media. But rather than being a good neighbour, wouldn’t an improvement be to get rid of an arbitrary system that can condemn bright children through oversight, luck, prejudice or malice? 

READ ALSO: What parents should know about German schools

‘Disastrous’ for social mobility

This idea of streaming children into different schools based on ability may sound meritocratic, similar to the grammar school system beloved by many conservatives. But the German school system is grammar schools on steroids, and it has had disastrous results for social mobility; Germany has some of the worst in the developed world, with only 15 percent of young people whose parents didn’t go to university end up graduating from one, four times less likely than those with parents who did. It’s not just about education: Germany is second to last in the OECD in how many people rise from the bottom 25 percent to the top 25 percent economically too. Reports make clear these discrepancies aren’t just about the streaming system – low uptake in early childhood education and below EU average education funding also play a role.

The school system differs slightly across each state but basically there are three types: Gymnasium, Hauptschule and Realschule. Gymnasium are the most academic and pupils go on to do Abitur, which is usually needed to get into university. Students can transfer from one to another, but by most accounts it isn’t easy. And while Gymnasiums and school streaming or tracking does exist in other countries, Germany has the strictest form of it. 

PODCAST: The big problem with the German school system and can you pass a citizenship test?

Rather than being based on an exam such as Britain’s 11+ model (which itself benefits parents with the means to hire private tutors or the time and education to help their children study) it is based arbitrarily on the opinion of an individual teacher, who parents often make efforts to impress. Yes, teachers in Germany are highly trained professionals, but all people have unconscious biases and some people have conscious ones. Blind studies show that children with non-German or working class names like Kevin receive worse marks for the same piece of schoolwork. 

It seems bizarre and unfair to make the decision at such an early age when children develop at different speeds – that’s if you need to make such a decision at all. Some of the school systems with the best results in the world such as Finland’s have a totally comprehensive system with no streaming at all. 

Due to reforms in recent decades, the letter of recommendation is only compulsory in three German federal states, this isn’t necessarily a huge improvement. A 2019 study “The Many (Subtle) Ways Parents Game the System” showed how parents with more social capital, themselves usually white German and better-off, can get their children into Gymnasium regardless of grades and a letter of recommendation. Is giving pushy parents even more opportunities necessarily an improvement?

Children in primary school in Germany.

Children in primary school in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

Supporters of the system say that not everyone is suited to academic study and we should allow for all kinds of different paths in life, and point to pretty decent income equality in the country. I agree, someone who gets technical qualifications being able to earn a decent living is something to be proud of in the German system, but why should that be determined by who your parents are? It doesn’t give working class people the opportunity to rise to the top – and changing careers in Germany is notoriously hard. 

As it stands, the system appears quasi-feudal to an outsider, with people passing their societal position onto their children especially in a system where academic titles carry so much prestige that politicians plagiarising PhDs is a scandal. And while most middle class Germans I’ve met are pretty honest that their country could do more to integrate immigrants, there can be a pretty prickly response if you bring up class differences, despite the plethora of Von’s and Zu’s in media, politics and industry. I received far more backlash online with this topic than any other, from education professionals with academic titles galore. It made me wonder, if a teacher is going to relentlessly savage a professional journalist for expressing a critical opinion, how will they treat a misbehaving student?

Education reforms are ‘controversial’

There have been attempts to introduce comprehensive schools or “Gesamtschulen” in various states, but they have hit major roadblocks from furious parents – one might argue they felt their privilege threatened. Education reforms are massively controversial in Germany generally. A striking proportion of Referendums and Citizen’s Initiatives across the country have been about repealing educational reforms, especially those which simplify the German language. No wonder approaching it is political suicide, mostly avoided even by progressive parties like the Left and the Greens. Educated people are a powerful constituency, with more money, representation and power. Meanwhile those disadvantaged are less likely to vote or even be able to vote. 

READ ALSO: What foreign parents really think about German schools

For a country that styles itself as the Land of “Dichter und Denker” (poets and thinkers) it’s no surprise that Germany takes education so seriously. Education also played an important role in the development of the country as the so-called Bildungsbürger (member of the educated classes) gained a liberalising influence in the mid 18th Century. But the results weren’t always stellar. The so-called PISA shock of 2008 was the first time that students across Europe were compared with each other, and Germany performed poorly. Though the average attainment has improved since then, it still isn’t as spectacular as many Gymnasium fans think, scoring about the same as the UK which has mostly comprehensive schools, while scoring desperately low for equity in social backgrounds. 

Education and what role the state should play in it is an emotive question. To me, it seems egregious that the state is funding a system that is shown to entrench social and educational inequality and segregate people based on what is more often than not their social class. The philosopher of science Stephen Jay Gould wrote “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” In Germany, he may have written that they were consigned to Hauptschule because of their name instead.