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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Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

German health ministers say that tougher Covid restrictions should come back into force if a serious wave emerges in autumn.

Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

Following a video meeting on Monday, the health ministers of Germany’s 16 states said tougher restrictions should be imposed again if they are needed. 

“The corona pandemic is not over yet – we must not be deceived by the current declining incidences,” said Saxony-Anhalt’s health minister Petra Grimm-Benne, of the Social Democrats, who currently chairs the Conference of Health Ministers (GMK).

According to the GMK, new virus variants are expected to appear in autumn and winter. Over the weekend, federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) also warned that the more dangerous Delta variant could return to Germany. “That is why the federal Ministry of Health should draw up a master plan to combat the corona pandemic as soon as possible and coordinate it with the states,” Grimm-Benne said.

Preparations should also include an amendment of the Infection Protection Act, ministers urged. They want to see the states given powers to react to the infection situation in autumn and winter. They called on the government to initiate the legislative process in a timely manner, and get the states actively involved.

The current Infection Protection Act expires on September 23rd this year. Germany has loosened much of its Covid restrictions in the last months, however, face masks are still compulsory on public transport as well as on planes. 

READ ALSO: Do people in Germany still have to wear Covid masks on planes?

The health ministers said that from autumn onwards, it should be possible for states to make masks compulsory indoors if the regional infection situation calls for it. Previously, wearing a Covid mask was obligatory in Germany when shopping and in restaurants and bars when not sitting at a table. 

Furthermore, the so-called 3G rule for accessing some venues and facilities – where people have to present proof of vaccination, recovery, or a negative test – should be implemented again if needed, as well as other infection protection rules, the ministers said. 

Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek, of the CSU, welcomed the ministers’ unanimous call for a revision of the Infection Protection Act. “The states must be able to take all necessary infection protection measures quickly, effectively, and with legal certainty,” he said.

North Rhine-Westphalia’s health minister Karl-Josef Laumann (CDU) warned that no one should “lull themselves into a false sense of security”.

“We must now prepare for the colder season and use the time to be able to answer important questions about the immunity of the population or the mechanisms of infection chains,” he said.

On Tuesday, Germany reported 86,253 Covid infections within the latest 24 hour period, as well as 215 Covid-related deaths. The 7-day incidence stood at 437.6 infections per 100,000 people. However, experts believe there could be twice as many infections because lots of cases go unreported. 

READ ALSO: Five things to know about the Covid pandemic in Germany right now