German politicians row over tougher mask rules for autumn

Summer is not yet in full swing yet - but German politicians are already caught in a row over what Covid regulations will be tightened when autumn arrives.

A passenger wears a face mask in Cologne.
A passenger wears a face mask in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

It emerged earlier this week that Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, of the Social Democrats (SPD), is considering how to adapt the Covid measures in autumn, with a view to making it possible to reintroduce compulsory indoor mask-wearing.

That would mean masks could once again be mandatory in places like shops and restaurants when not sitting at a table.

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

But the SPD’s coalition partner, the Free Democrats (FDP), are already digging their heels in. 

Justice Minister Marco Buschmann, of the FDP, slammed Lauterbach’s move to talk about changing the rules before a proper assessment of the situation. 

“I am in favour of following the law,” Buschmann told the Funke-Zeitung. “That is what an evaluation provides for.” 

The results of the evaluation should “absolutely” be taken into account “before we hastily commit to individual measures”, the FDP politician said.

Under the Infection Protection Act, ‘basic protection’ measures apply, with mask-wearing mandatory only in places like public transport, on flights to and from Germany, in hospitals, medical practices, and care facilities.

The law expires on September 23rd this year. Lauterbach told ZDF on Wednesday that his ministry was already planning for possible Covid outbreaks in autumn, and he said it was “absolutely necessary” to consider making masks mandatory indoors again.

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

FDP deputy leader Wolfgang Kubicki said tougher Covid restrictions in autumn should only be possible under strict conditions – and that scientific evidence had to show they were needed.

“There will not be another autumn and winter in which fundamental rights are restricted because of a haze of data fog,” the Bundestag vice president told DPA.

He said the FDP’s Covid policy, which involved pushing for Covid restrictions to be dropped earlier than coalition partners the SPD and Greens, was working out. 

“At present, it can be seen that the current course, which the FDP has pushed through under fierce hostility, has not led to the predicted collapse of the health system,” he said. 

Kubicki added that “a number of mistakes” had been made in Germany’s coronavirus policy in past two years. He said school closures, “inhumane” isolation of residents in old people’s homes, and the travel restrictions, that meant people in Germany could only travel a maximum of 15km from their home at one point, were some of the errors. 

Teachers hope for masks in schools

However, some German teachers take a different view.

The President of the German Teachers’ Association, Heinz-Peter Meidinger, recently advocated for mandatory masks in schools to be imposed again.

“Politicians are once again not doing their homework on the subject of pandemics and schools,” he told the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland (RND).

He said masks could be “a decisive factor” in keeping schools open in the event of a Covid autumn wave, and that the government needs to amend the Infection Protection Act.

The chairperson of the Education and Science Union, Maike Finnern, has a similar view.

“A good testing strategy and the wearing of masks in the buildings can also play a decisive role in the future,” Finnern said. “To this end, the legal basis must now be created, for example, for mandatory masks, so that measures can take effect quickly and with legal certainty if necessary,”.

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How useful are Germany’s Covid restrictions?

Protective measures such as wearing a mask correctly and lockdowns can be effective in the fight against Covid, an expert commission in Germany has found. But many questions remain unanswered.

How useful are Germany's Covid restrictions?

The council of experts spent months evaluating the effects of measures imposed by the German government to help slow down the spread of Covid-19.

In the presentation of their findings on Friday, the panel said that measures like mask-wearing have had an effect, and can continue to be helpful against coronavirus.

The council said masks could be “an effective instrument”, but that there are limitations.

“An ill-fitting or not tight-fitting mask has a reduced to no effect,” said the council.

If masks are made compulsory again in the future, this should only apply indoors, because the risk of infection is higher there, the report said. 

However the experts added: “A general recommendation to wear FFP2 masks cannot be derived from the data so far.” Virologist Hendrick Streeck, who is on the panel, said that a “separate commission should look into this”.

READ ALSO: Germany’s current Covid mask rules 

On lockdowns, the experts said the usefulness of this measure depended on the infection situation. 

“When only a few people are infected, lockdown measures have a significantly stronger effect,” the report said. The longer a lockdown lasts, and the fewer people are willing to support the measure, the lesser the effect, experts added. 

Similar to to lockdown measures, contact tracing was also found to be effective in the early phases of the pandemic.

Members of the Covid expert panel Jutta Allmendinger, Hendrik Streeck, Harald Wilkoszewski and Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff speak on Friday.

Members of the Covid expert panel Jutta Allmendinger, Hendrik Streeck, Harald Wilkoszewski and Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff speak on Friday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Sommer

The report authors also said that the success of access restrictions, such as the 2G/3G measures (which mean people have to be vaccinated, recovered or tested to enter a public venue), depended on when people had had their jab or had been infected with Covid.

“The effect of 2G/3G measures is high with current variants in the first weeks after booster vaccination or recovery,” the report says. However, the protection against infection decreases significantly over time. 

In the current phase of the pandemic, it’s difficult to assess how useful these rules are, said the council. They recommended that in future, tests should be recommended as a condition of entry, regardless of vaccination status. 

Meanwhile, the evaluation concluded that risk communication in Germany was poorly used and that the information campaign to the public could have been better designed.

No statement on vaccinations

There are measures on which the committee did not make any statements, including vaccinations. Virologist Streek said that was the task of the Standing Commission on Vaccination (STIKO).

The experts were also weren’t clear on the controversial topic of school closures. Their effectiveness is “still open, despite biological plausibility and numerous studies”, the report said. The panel called for more studies on school closures.

READ ALSO: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

The researchers said that they struggled to evaluate some measures due to poor data, and urged authorities to adopt better methods and practices on that front. 

“We have a poor data situation,” said virologist Streeck. 

As Germany is preparing for possible Covid waves in autumn, the Health Ministry will be looking at the report closely.

But Greens’ health expert Janosch Dahmen said the findings were of limited significance.

“The report provides supplementary evidence, but by no means a conclusive assessment of the effect of Covid protection measures,” said Dahmen.

The completion of the report, which should have been published on June 30th, was delayed.

In the run-up, the head of the council of experts, Stefan Huster, dampened expectations for the report.

“Anyone expecting a list with a plus or a minus behind all the individual measures for ‘effective’ or ‘not effective’ will be disappointed,” Huster told Spiegel. “Our perspective is more fundamental and looks at the structures, in terms of being well prepared for a pandemic.”

The panel, which included scientists and researchers in various fields, was commissioned by the German government to carry out the research.