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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Germany to bring in new Covid rules ahead of ‘difficult’ winter

With infection numbers shooting up once again in Germany, states are set to bring in a new set of Covid measures on October 1st.

Germany to bring in new Covid rules ahead of 'difficult' winter

From Saturday, masks will no longer be required on commercial flights, though people will still be expected to wear an FFP2 mask on long-distance trains.

States will also be given 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 to masks for people who are recently vaccinated or who have tested negative for Covid.

States will also be able to introduce compulsory testing in schools and nurseries.

READ ALSO: German states likely to keep mask mandate on public transport

Speaking at a press conference alongside Robert Koch Institute (RKI) chair Lothar Wieler on Friday, German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach defended the decision to keep Covid rules in place when other countries in Europe have largely got rid of their pandemic measures. 

“It’s not for me to criticise what other countries are doing,” said Lauterbach. “We have a particularly difficult winter ahead of us due to the energy crisis, we don’t want to make it worse through the Covid crisis.”

The SPD politician also defended plans for mandatory masks for residents and staff in nursing and care homes. Having 40 or 50 vulnerable people together in an enclosed space is “extremely high-risk”, he said. 

Under the new rules set to be introduced on Saturday, residents of care homes will be expected to wear FPP2 masks in all common areas of the home, and will only be able to take them off in their bedrooms.

“For people in nursing homes, the FFP2 mask requirement means a considerable cut in their quality of life,” Regina Görner, chairwoman of the Federal Association of Senior Citizens’ Organisations (Bagso), told DPA:

“The nursing home is their home, in which they can then no longer move freely without a mask.”

Visitors to nursing homes, meanwhile, will have to supply a negative Covid test, while staff will be tested three times a week. 

Under the autumn and winter rules, people across Germany will also be required to wear an FFP2 mask at their doctor’s surgery and in medical outpatient facilities such as hospitals.

“We’re better prepared than last autumn,” Lauterbach told reporters on Friday. “We have the infection numbers under control, we have this wave under control.” 

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS – Germany’s new Covid-19 rules for autumn

Steep rise in cases

As the weather turns colder, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) has reported a steep rise in respiratory infections, including Covid-19.

Last week, the number of Covid patients jumped dramatically from 500,000 to 1.2 million per week, with cases rising significantly in every age group.

Meanwhile, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 people shot up from 409 on Thursday to 466 on Friday. The previous week, the weekly incidence stood at 294 per 100,000 people. 

The numbers are believed to be partially inflated by the ongoing Oktoberfest beer festival, which is being held for the first time since the pandemic started. In Munich, the location of the festival, the weekly incidence is almost 800. 

Speaking at the press conference in Berlin on Friday, RKI chair Wieler warned people not to get complacent about the threat of infection.

“A mild course of illness simply means not ending up in hospital,” he said. “We should be conscious of how much risk we want take on, and how much risk we can avoid.”

RKI chief Lothar Wieler

Robert Koch Institute chair Lothar Wieler (l) and Heath Minister Karl Lauterbach (r) hold a press conference in Berlin on Friday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

Despite the looming energy crisis, the RKI boss advised the public to ensure that rooms were well ventilated, adding that spaces normally occupied by a large number of people should be aired out more regularly.

He also advised people with Covid symptoms to stay home until they felt better in order to avoid passing on any infections, and warned that people should be especially careful to avoid contact with vulnerable people.

“Just like before, these people need our solidarity,” he said. 

Self-isolation and quarantine rules vary from state to state, but people who test positive for Covid generally have to isolate for a minimum of five days and a maximum of 10.

In some cases, people can take an additional Covid test in order to end their isolation early.

The RKI has also recommended that people wear a mask in public enclosed spaces. 

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