Four German states poised to end mandatory Covid isolation

Since the start of the pandemic, people with proven Covid infections have had to self-isolate at home for several days. That's now set to change as a handful of German states lift their mandatory isolation rules.

Covid masks mandatory isolation
A Covid mask hanging on a window during self-isolation. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Zacharie Scheurer

In a statement from the Baden-Württemberg health ministry in Stuttgart, the states of Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Hessen and Schleswig-Holstein announced that they would be ending compulsory isolation for people with Covid. 

The new regulations will come into force “promptly”, the ministry said, adding that the details were still being worked out.

According to the statement, other rules and recommendations will be in place for people with a confirmed infection to help prevent the spread of Covid. 

“The states will introduce adapted mandatory protective measures such as a limited masking requirement for persons tested positive, as well as urgent recommendations,” it reads. 

Health minister Klaus Holetschek (CSU) named November 16th as the date for getting rid of compulsory isolation in Bavaria. The deadline for scrapping mandatory isolation in the other three states is still undecided.

“We are ushering in a new phase in dealing with the pandemic,” said Baden-Württemberg’s health minister Manne Lucha (Greens). “It is time to give people more personal responsibility again.”

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

The Austrian example

The four states are basing their decision partially on the example set by neighbouring countries such as Austria, where measures replacing mandatory isolation have been in place since summer 2022. 

“Declining infection figures, an effective protective vaccination, a basic immunity within the population of more than 90 percent, usually no severe courses of the disease as well as effective antiviral drugs justify taking this step promptly, in the view of the states,” the statement explains. 

Joint recommendations agreed by the state lay out a number of basic rules that could be in place instead of the obligation to self-isolation.

This includes wearing a mask indoors, social distancing while outdoors and avoiding visiting medical and nursing facilities.

The four federal states, which have now jointly announced the lifting of the isolation obligation, had asked Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) at the end of September to change the Robert Koch Institute’s official isolation recommendations for people infected with Covid-19.

At the time, Lauterbach was quick to reject the proposals, but Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP) pointed out that the states could override the RKI’s recommendations at any time. 

The RKI recommends that the states mandate at least five days’ isolation for infected people. In addition, they suggest a “test to release” system where people require a negative self-test result to end the isolation after this point.

According to the RKI, healthcare workers should also be symptom-free for at least 48 hours before returning to work.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What are the current Covid rules in Germany around quarantine?

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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