Should Germany bring in drastic travel restrictions in fight against Covid variants?

Should Germany introduce even more travel restrictions? That's the question as the country considers whether air travel should be cut to "almost zero" to deal with new Covid variants.

Should Germany bring in drastic travel restrictions in fight against Covid variants?
People queuing in Hamburg airport before Christmas. Photo: DPA

What's the latest?

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer on Tuesday said the more contagious coronavirus variants force the country to consider further wide-ranging measures, especially when it comes to travel.

“That includes significantly stricter border checks, especially at the borders of high-risk areas, but also reducing air travel to Germany to almost zero, as Israel is currently doing,” he said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly backs the idea. She is said to have told lawmakers from her conservative CDU/CSU bloc that citizens had a right to expect the government would take “certain precautions at border”, participants at the meeting told AFP.

“Everyone understands that now is not the time to travel,” she was quoted as saying.

READ ALSO: Germany considers cutting international air travel 'to almost zero'

What might that look like?

German authorities are already strongly urging people to avoid travel, within the country and abroad. There are also new stricter testing and quarantine rules. 

But if restrictions are made even tougher, it could mean almost all foreign flights are grounded.

Israel this week introduced an almost complete ban on air travel. The government there banned inbound and outbound flights by foreign airlines to slow the spread of Covid-19 strains.

The ban is initially in place until January 31st. Flights leaving the country are only approved in rare instances. Firefighting planes, emergency medical flights, and cargo aircraft are not affected by the policy. Meanwhile, domestic airlines in the country also face some new restrictions.

READ ALSO: These are Germany's latest rules on foreign travel to deal with Covid variants

What's the reaction?

As you can imagine, it's mixed.

High profile German scientist Christian Drosten said drastic measures to cut tourist travel would be sensible “from a scientific point of view”.

Drosten said that in view of the declining daily coronavirus numbers in Germany, “of course you have to pay attention to what comes from outside”.

The more the spread of Covid-19 is slowed within Germany, “the more important it becomes” to think about “what is brought in from outside”, the head of virology at Berlin's Charité hospital told broadcaster ARD in reference to the concern about virus mutants.

At the same time, the virologist, who advises the German government, advised caution in the debate about possible loosening of the current restrictions.

“At some point, we will have vaccinated so many people that the virus will no longer spread on its own,” he said.

The only question, he added, is how long that will take, and it doesn't look like this will happen any time soon. If the measures are simply stopped now, “then we will certainly see the virus multiplying again quite strongly”, he warned.

The current lockdown measures are in place until February 14th.

READ ALSO: Is it too early for Germany to think about a shutdown exit plan?

Meanwhile, pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) vice-chairman Wolfgang Kubicki warned the government against drastically restricting travel in the pandemic.

“No flight or travel bans will help in the current situation, especially since everyone has to go through tests anyway,” said Kubicki. He said vaccinating the population at a faster pace was the key. 

 “That is the most reliable and only way out of this pandemic,” he said.

Industries affected have also hit back.

The German Travel Association (DRV) said tourist travel had already come to an almost complete standstill due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, while the business travel sector is also down.

“The federal government should also take note of this,” the association said. “It should therefore not now concentrate on further restricting our already severely limited freedom to travel.”

Germany on Wednesday reported 13,202 new Covid-19 infections within 24 hours and 982 deaths.

Last Wednesday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) recorded 15,974 new infections and 1,148 new deaths within 24 hours.

The number of new infections reported within seven days per 100,000 inhabitants (7-day incidence) was 101.0 on Wednesday morning, according to the RKI. A record high of 197.6 was reached on December 22nd 2020. The number fluctuated thereafter and has been falling for several days.

Germany wants to get this number down to 50.

Will events take place this summer?

Meanwhile, there is still uncertainty over events happening this year.

Eventimpresents and Live Nation, the organisers of “Rock am Ring” (Nürburgring) and “Rock im Park” in Nuremberg, say that they will have to wait for concrete developments.

After last year's cancellation due to coronavirus, the twin festivals were scheduled to take place on the second weekend in June 2021.

“There are still a lot of question marks,” Stephan Thanscheidt from organiser FKP Scorpio said.

“We have to wait and see how the infection figures and the availability of the vaccines develop.”

“There is a lot of uncertainty in the industry at the moment,” said the president of the Federal Association of the Concert and Event Industry, Jens Michow.

“For the summer festivals, we will need decisions by mid-March at the latest on what form they can take because they need a minimum time to prepare.”


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Is the pandemic over in Germany?

As much of Germany lifts - or prepares to lift - the last remaining Covid-19 measures, intensive care units say Covid-19 admissions are no longer straining the system.

Is the pandemic over in Germany?

Despite a difficult winter of respiratory illnesses, intensive care units in Germany say Covid-19 admissions have almost halved. The number of cases having to be treated in the ICU has gone down to 800 from 1,500 at the beginning of this month.

“Corona is no longer a problem in intensive care units,” Gernot Marx, Vice President of the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine, told the German Editorial Network. “A the moment, we don’t have to think every day about how to still ensure the care of patients, but how to actually run a service that can help.”

Marx said the drop has allowed them to catch up on many postponed surgeries.

The number of sick employees in hospitals is also falling, helping to relieve the pressure on personnel.

The easing pressure on hospitals correlates with the assessment of prominent virologist and head of the Virology department at Berlin’s Charite – Christian Drosten – who said in December that the pandemic was close to ending, with the winter wave being an endemic one.

German federal and state governments are now in the midst of lifting the last of the country’s pandemic-related restrictions. Free Covid-19 antigen tests for most people, with exceptions for medical personnel, recently ended.

READ ALSO: Free Covid-19 tests end in Germany

Six federal states – Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Hessen, Thuringia, Lower Saxony, and Schleswig-Holstein – have ended mandatory isolation periods for people who test positive for Covid-19.

Bavaria, Saxony-Anhalt, and Schleswig-Holstein have ended the requirement to wear FFP2 masks on public transport, while Berlin, Brandenburg, Saxony, Thuringia, and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania will follow suit on February 2nd.

At that time, the federal government will also drop its requirement for masks to be worn on long-distance trains. Labour Minister Hubertus Heil says that’s when he also intends to exempt workplaces – apart from medical locations – from a mask requirement.

READ ALSO: Germany to drop mask mandate in trains and buses from February 2nd

Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg will also end the requirement for patients to wear a mask in doctor’s offices. That’s a requirement that, so far, will stay in place everywhere else. Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has also said that he thinks this requirement should remain. 

But some public health insurers and general practitioners are calling for a nationwide end to the obligation for wearing masks in doctor’s offices.

“The pandemic situation is over,” National Association of Statutory Health Physicians (KBV) Chair Andreas Gassen told the RND network. “High-risk patients aren’t treated in all practices. It should generally be left up to medical colleagues to decide whether they want to require masks in their practices.”