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EXPLAINED: Germany’s rules and exceptions for Covid quarantine

A few months back, the German Bundesrat signed off on a new law to change the duration of quarantine for people infected with Covid and their contacts. Here's everything you need to know about the latest rules and what to do if you think you might have the virus.

Covid testing station in Hamburg
People wait in line for a Covid test in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christian Charisius

What’s the difference between self-isolation and quarantine? 

Quarantine and self-isolation are often used interchangeably to describe the practice of avoiding contact with other people in order to reduce the spread of Covid. There is, however, an important difference.

Quarantine is a pre-emptive measure designed to shield people who aren’t ill from those who may be infectious. It normally occurs if there’s a chance you’ve been infected with Covid – say, if a close contact has got the virus – but you haven’t necessarily taken a test or developed symptoms. It’s also a key part of the government’s strategy for dealing with foreign travellers who may be infectious.

At the moment, unvaccinated travellers arriving from a ‘high risk’ area have to quarantine for up to ten days, with the option to end this after five days with a negative test. All travellers from a virus variant area must quarantine for two weeks, with no option of shortening it. 

Meanwhile, self-isolation is what happens if you have a proven infection and want to avoid transmitting the virus to other people. 

When do I have to quarantine? 

Aside from the travel situations listed above, you may need to quarantine if you have had contact with someone who has Covid during the window of time when they are infectious.

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the infectious period stretches from two days before the onset of symptoms to 14 days after symptoms appear. In asymptomatic cases, this window is two days before the test was taken and 14 days afterwards. 

If you receive a red alert on your CoronaWarn app because you’ve unknowingly had contact with an infected person, contact your GP or local health authority to find out the next steps. Generally they will tell you to do a PCR test to see if you have an infection.

If you’re a close contact person of someone who’s infected with Covid – i.e. your partner or child – get in touch with your local health authority to find out what your next steps should be. You can find out which health authority you need with this tool from the Robert Koch Institute. 

READ ALSO: What to do if you get a red alert on Germany’s Covid warning app

Are there any exceptions?

Yes. People who have a booster jab are exempted from the quarantine requirement if they’ve had contact with an infected person. The same applies to people who finished their full course of jabs in the past three months, or have recovered from Covid in the last three months. 

Everyone who tests positive for Covid must self-isolate, however, regardless of their vaccination or recovery status. 

When do I need to self-isolate?

Official government advice says that you should stay home if you have any cold symptoms (regardless of the type) or a positive self- or rapid-test result, though this isn’t mandated by law. 

Pop up Covid testing station

A man gets a test at a mobile Covid testing centre in Hannover. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

If you get a positive result on a rapid test, the best thing to do is get a PCR test at a state testing centre or with your GP. The Ministry of Health advise people to call ahead before turning up at the surgery to find out what the procedure is. Many GPs currently run special Covid drop-ins, so they may ask you to come at a specific time of day to avoid infecting other patients. 

If you need to contact someone outside the normal office hours of the practice, you can also call the medical on-call service under the nationwide standardised telephone number 116 117 or get in touch with your local public health office

Once you have a positive PCR test result, you will be required by law to self-isolate at home – unless you have a severe course of illness and need hospital treatment. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s new quarantine rules to be signed into law ‘by Saturday’

How long do I have to quarantine for?

This is one of the major changes that Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) has brought in. Previously, a number of different rules and durations applied depending on vaccination status and the virus variant in question. This has now been massively simplified

Whether you are in quarantine or self-isolating, the period of time you must avoid contact with others has now been standardised at 10 days. This can be shortened to seven days with a negative PCR or “high-quality” antigen test. 

What rules do I need to follow in quarantine? 

The main principle is, of course, to avoid contact with others as much as possible. This means staying at home, remaining in a separate room from the rest of your household and taking meals separately. When moving around the house (if you live with others), it’s also advisable to wear a mask. 

For deliveries of groceries or meals, you should aim for a contactless delivery in which the courier leaves your shopping or order outside your door. You should generally only leave the house for medical treatment (i.e. if you start feeling very ill and need to go to hospital) or your test on the seventh day. 

If you need advice, you can consult the online Covid Guide, call the medical advice line on 116 117 or get in touch with your doctor’s surgery. In an emergency, call 112. 

READ ALSO: Fact check: Does Germany really have the world’s strictest Covid measures?

What else do I need to know? 

Slightly different rules apply to children and health workers. For children and young people who’ve had contact with an infected person, quarantine can be ended after five days (as opposed to seven) with a negative antigen or PCR test. 

Meanwhile, medical and care workers who are self-isolating after a proven infection must be symptom-free for 48 hours in order to end their quarantine on the seventh day, as well as having a negative PCR test. 

When do the new rules come into force?

Germany’s 16 states are bringing in the changes now they have been signed off at the federal level, so they should be in force soon. Again, double check with your local authority if you have any questions. 

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German Health Minister planning new mask rules for autumn

Germany’s Health Minister Karl Lauterbach is already making plans to combat a potential new wave of Covid infections in the autumn.

German Health Minister planning new mask rules for autumn

Speaking on Germany’s ZDF channel on Wednesday, Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said that he wants to make it possible to reintroduce compulsory indoor mask-wearing in the autumn.

Under the current Infection Protection Act, only so-called ‘basic protection’ applies – with mask-wearing mandatory only on public transport and in stations, on flights to and from Germany, in hospitals and medical practices, and care facilities.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Germany’s current Covid mask rules

But Lauterbach said that the Infection Protection Act, which is due to expire on September 23rd, is now being worked on again.

“The question will have to be discussed again, for example, whether wearing masks indoors will become mandatory…I think it is absolutely necessary that we open up this possibility for the autumn,” he said.

Lauterbach’s comments follow a meeting of state health ministers last week, in which they warned that new Covid-19 variants are expected to appear in autumn and winter and that tougher restrictions should be imposed again if they are needed. 

READ ALSO: Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach also warned that the higher-risk Delta variant could return to Germany. “That is why the Federal Ministry of Health should draw up a master plan to combat the Covid-19 pandemic as soon as possible and coordinate it with the states,” Chairwoman of the conference of health ministers, Petra Grimm-Benne said.

In the ZDF programme on Wednesday, Lauterbach also defended government plans to procure additional Covid vaccines. He said they now have vaccines for three different Covid strains ready for the autumn.

“I don’t know what’s coming,” he said, but, when a dangerous wave comes, he said, everyone wants the best vaccine. “So I’d rather be criticized for throwing it away later.”