German health minister urges states to bring back mask-wearing indoors

Germany’s Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SDP) has urged states to reintroduce mask requirements for indoor spaces due to high Covid-19 infection numbers, while launching his Ministry's new Covid campaign on Friday.

Karl Lauterbach (SPD), Federal Minister of Health, attends a press conference on the current Covid situation in Berlin.
Karl Lauterbach (SPD), Federal Minister of Health, attends a press conference on the current Covid situation in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

“The direction we are heading in is not a good one,” the SPD politician said at a press conference in Berlin on Friday, referring to rising numbers of Covid infections.

He said that it would make sense to introduce less stringent restrictions now than to have to bring in drastic ones later on. “Now is really the time,” he said.

Under the current Covid regulations, which came into force on October 1st, mask-wearing is only mandatory on long-distance trains and for residents and staff in nursing and care homes.  

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

The states have the option to introduce mandatory masks in other public indoor spaces, including on local public transport and in schools. If they choose to bring in masks, they’ll also have the freedom to introduce exceptions for people who are recently vaccinated or who have tested negative for Covid.

The Health Minister made it clear, however, that with advanced vaccines, medicines and more accurate data, the tools are in place for keeping the pandemic under control this autumn and winter. He added that the federal government is doing everything it can to ensure that the Covid crisis stays in the background while the country continues to struggle to deal with the effects of the war in Ukraine.

READ ALSO: What should I do if I get Covid in Germany?

In that spirit, the Health Ministry’s new campaign, called “I Protect Myself”, seeks to promote vaccinations, but also mutual caution and protection with masks, in a way that focuses on individual responsibility and “sticking together as a community”.

In the campaign, 84 “real people” talk about their experiences with Covid – some funny and some “not so funny”, with each representing a million citizens. The campaign will be shown on television, social networks, in newspapers and on posters. Lauterbach repeatedly emphasised that it is not intended to scare people.

Member comments

  1. Everything this man does is to scare people. All he’s done throughout the pandemic is run around screaming how were all going to die. And, are these new jabs as well tested as pfizers? You know, the one where they didn’t even test to see if it stops transmission before selling it because they were moving at the speed of science. Or the money printer. Or was it tested on volunteers first? Or just eight mice as is what I’ve heard.

    And as for masks. We still do not have any conclusive evidence for their effectiveness. Even that committee said they assume a well fitted mask might help. But they don’t know. Once you leave Germany basically no one wears them. The pandemic is over in most other countries. But not Germany, they haven’t finished milking this cash cow for every last cent quite yet.

    And censored.

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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