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Germany’s new COVID debate

Germany debates lifting COVID restrictions, while the EU considers imposing new ones as China lifts travel restrictions despite an outbreak in the country.

The German government found itself dealing with a fresh split in its coalition this week after Justice Minister Marco Buschmann, of the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), called on the rest of the government to end the last remaining COVID prevention measures.

Epidemiologist and German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), responded by suggesting that ending all preventive measures immediately would be “foolish.”

The disagreement broke out after Christian Drosten, the chief virologist at Berlin’s Charité hospital and one of the country’s most prominent public figures during the pandemic, said that COVID-19 had moved into a new phase. “We are experiencing the first endemic wave of Sars-CoV-2 this winter, in my opinion, that means the pandemic is over,” Drosten told the Tagesspiegel newspaper on Monday.

An endemic virus means that infection rates are constant, not rising or falling significantly, partly because vaccines and immunity through previous infections have slowed new waves of infections.

In Germany, the number of PCR tests has dwindled in the course of 2022, so numbers are unreliable. But the RKI, the independent government agency responsible for monitoring and combating infectious and non-infectious diseases, recorded over 160,000 new infections over the past week. 

Restrictions still in place

Germany still has relatively cautious regulations in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Until in April 2023, when the current infection prevention law is due to expire, FFP2 masks must be worn on all long-distance trains and buses, in all hospitals and care homes, and in all doctors’ offices. People visiting hospitals and care homes must also be tested beforehand.

All other regulations — covering public transport, schools, restaurants, etc. — are organized at the state level, and differ across Germany’s 16 states. In Berlin, for instance, masks are still obligatory on public transport, whereas in Bavaria they are only recommended.

Germany saw a wave of demos against restrictive measures during the pandemic, though the so-called Querdenker movement associated with it has now largely moved on to a variety of other random conspiracy theories.

It is unsurprising that leading FDP politicians would speak out in favor of scrapping restrictions. Protecting personal freedom is one of the FDP’s founding credos, and the party has been working to appear more independent from its government coalition partners in the face of a string of poor election results.

Bernd Salzberger, head of infectiology at the University Hospital Regensburg and president of the German infectiology society (DGI), conceded that certain regulations could be relaxed in Germany. “Other countries have been doing that very successfully, like Denmark and Britain,” he said. “Of course, we should keep masks in hospitals, simply because there’s a high concentration of vulnerable people there. But in general life, I think we can wind down a lot of measures. I also think that a lot of people behave responsibly now — that’s the other question, does everything need to be regulated?”

Salzberger told DW he felt that public prevention measures, like mandatory masks on trains, make little difference in infection rates, largely because COVID-19 has now become endemic. “If we had a strong infection wave, where everyone is getting infected, that would be a different situation,” he said.

Protecting hospitals

But Germany’s largest doctors’ association, the Marburger Bund reacted with instant outrage to the Justice Minister’s suggestion to scrap all restrictions. Chairperson Susanne Johna described the minister’s comments as “hard to beat for audacity.” “The repeal of all measures is profoundly lacking in solidarity with hospital staff, who have done a great deal during the pandemic and have just reached the breaking point again,” she told the RND media network, pointing to a new wave of influenza and other viral infections currently hitting German hospitals.

Gerald Gass, the chairperson of the German Hospital Federation (DKG), also said it would be legitimate to discuss relaxing certain infection prevention measures, perhaps at the end of February, but “lifting all measures overnight” now would not be a good idea.

He said that hospitals were currently relatively full, especially with flu cases. “We’re seeing a combination of infections, some of which are landing in the intensive care units,” he told DW. “That includes fewer COVID patients, but a lot of influenza patients, especially older people, and RS virus cases among children and young people.” Not only that, he added, more and more hospital staff were currently getting caught in the wave of infections and calling in sick, which was adding to the pressure.

New China wave

Meanwhile, European Union leaders have begun to express concern about Beijing’s plans to relax travel restrictions. China has said it would allow its citizens to travel abroad again and will lift mandatory quarantine for those traveling into the country from January 8, despite a new COVID infection wave spreading across the country in the past two months.

The US, India, and Japan have already announced they would introduce mandatory COVID tests for travelers from China, while the European Union has called a meeting of its 27 members to determine a common strategy.

Italy has urged action at the European level after more than 50% of arrivals on a plane from China on December 26 tested positive at Milan airport.

The German government said it was keeping a close eye on the situation. So far, however, there are no indications that a new variant has developed in China, which would otherwise make the country a variant area and lead to travel restrictions, a Health Ministry spokesperson said.

China is currently reporting between 20,000 to 30,000 new daily infections to the World Health Organization, though the accuracy of those figures has been questioned.

“I’m not sure how accurately the Chinese authorities are reporting and how well they’re testing,” said Salzberger. “It’s hard to judge what is really happening there.”

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