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COVID-19 RULES

Are German states poised to bring back uniform Covid measures?

German health ministers are meeting on Monday amid calls to coordinate Covid measures across the German states. Could they be set to bring back uniform mask-wearing and testing rules?

Medical mask on floor in Hamburg station
A medical mask lies on the floor in a Hamburg U-Bahn station. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marcus Brandt

What’s going on?

Since the start of October, Germany has had a new system of Covid measures in place. On the national level, basic rules like wearing masks on long-distance transport and in clinics are standardised – but anything beyond that is decided on by the individual states.

If infections and hospitalisations reach a critical level, state health ministers can bring in additional rules like mandatory masks on local public transport and in public indoor spaces like restaurants and bars. If they do, they can make exceptions for people with a recent negative test and those who have been vaccinated within the past three months. They also have the power to bring back testing in schools to help combat the spread of infection. 

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

The current measures were a compromise position between the cautious approach of Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) and the more liberal stance of Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP). But not everyone is happy with the new system. 

Ahead of a meeting between state and federal health ministers on Monday, doctors in the public health service were calling for more uniform rules to be applied across all of Germany’s 16 states. 

Speaking on ARD’s Morgenmagazin programme, Johannes Nießen, chairman of the Federal Association of Public Health Physicians, urged ministers to come to an agreement about the criteria for tightening Covid measures.

It should be clear which rules will apply in both Hamburg and Munich “if the incidence reaches 500 or 1,000”, he said. 

Though some states, like Lower Saxony, have come up with their own thresholds for loosening and tightening measures, there is no clear guidance in the Infection Protection Act about what constitutes a “critical” situation. 

Nießen, who also sits on the government’s panel of Covid experts, is pushing the ministers to define this more clearly at Monday’s meeting. 

Is this likely to happen?

According to Saxony-Anhalt’s health minister, Petra Grimm-Benne (SPD), who is chairing the Health Ministers’ Conference, the aim of Monday’s meeting is to reach an agreement on nationwide rules.

Speaking to ARD, Grimm-Benne said there were two key priorities for the conference: “We want to make sure once again that the compulsory wearing of masks continues to apply in public transport in all federal states. And we want to talk about how we can possibly regulate the obligation to wear masks indoors.”

Passengers take an IC train in Cologne

Passengers enter an IC train in Cologne next to a sign indicating that masks should be worn onboard. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

If ministers are able to come to an agreement, states that opted to end compulsory masks on local transport at the start of October could be forced to reintroduce them. In addition, the ministers could bring in a new set of benchmarks for the introduction of things like indoor masks and tests in schools.

Unlike the winters of 2020 and 2021, where measures were largely based on the number of Covid cases, the threshold this year is most likely to be based on the situation in hospitals.

In Lower Saxony, for example, the incidence of weekly hospitalisations and the proportion of beds occupied by Covid patients are the two key benchmarks for deciding what rules to bring in.

READ ALSO: What will the Covid situation in Germany look like this autumn?

Are there any downsides to bringing in uniform rules?

Since the new Infection Protection Act came into force in October, Health Minister Lauterbach (SPD) has been urging states to use their powers to tighten up the rules before infections spiral. 

But so far the majority of states have seemed reluctant to do so, preferring to stick with the basic measures set out in the Infection Protection Act. Speaking to The Local last week, a spokesperson for the health ministry in North-Rhine Westphalia pointed out that staffing levels in hospitals remained stable despite the high level of Covid infections. 

“Against this background, the ministry does not see any need for additional protective measures at the moment,” the spokesperson explained. Similar statements were made by the health ministries in Saxony, Bavaria and Rhineland Palatinate. 

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) wears a mask ahead of a press statement on Covid rules in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

States are also concerned that mandatory masks indoors could be difficult for business owners to monitor.

“We know that if we want to impose an obligation to wear masks indoors (…) that we then also have to regulate exceptions according to the Infection Protection Act, namely for the newly recovered and the newly vaccinated,” said Grimme-Benne.

The key issue was how vaccination and recovery certificates would be checked, and how businesses could determine who the mask-wearing exceptions applied to, she said.

“We have to discuss this with the other health ministers today.”

READ ALSO: Which German states are planning to bring back masks indoors?

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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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