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

Germany will end the requirement to wear face masks on long-distance trains and buses from February 2nd as the coronavirus pandemic loosened its grip on the country, authorities announced on Friday.

FFP2 masks on Deutsche Bahn trains
A sign on a Deutsche Bahn train informs passengers of the Covid mask rules. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach made the announcement after consultations with ministers from Germany’s 16 federal states, saying “the infection situation has stabilised.”

Lauterbach, however, encouraged people to continue wearing masks voluntarily “on the basis of personal responsibility”, adding “the virus should not be trivialised” and warning of potential longer-term impacts.

Several factors contributed to the policy change, Lauterbach said, including a higher level of immunity in the public and a reduced chance of new mutations, which meant a winter resurgence of the virus was unlikely.

The situation is “tense but manageable” in hospitals, Lauterbach added.

The requirement, which has been in place since the early stages of the pandemic, had been scheduled to expire on April 7nd but will now end sooner.

A number of German states – including Bavaria and Schleswig-Holstein – have already relaxed mask rules in regional public transport, while several others are set to do so at the start of February. 

READ ALSO: Several German states to drop Covid masks on public transport in February

However, rules on the country’s long-distance train and bus network remain the central government’s responsibility.

Germany was one of the few remaining countries in Europe to keep a mask requirement, with many having scrapped rules or downgraded them to recommendations in 2022.

Alongside Germany, Spain is the only other large European country to maintain mask rules on long-distance trains and public transport, with the Spanish government announcing in October that these will remain in place until at least March 2023.

Free “test-to-release” tests to end 

In another key move away from pandemic measures, the government has also announced that people will have to pay for their Covid tests in order to end self-isolation from January 16th.

Medical staff who need to test before returning to work and visitors to clinics and care homes will still receive their tests free of charge until February 28th. 

Self-isolation rules vary from state to state, but some require a negative test if people want to stop isolating after five days instead of the full ten.

These are currently funded by the government, but funding is due to end on January 15th. 

The news comes after a group of five states announced that they would be ending mandatory self-isolation for people infected with Covid.

Instead, people will be required to wear masks while out and about and observe social distancing rules. 

READ ALSO: Four German states poised to end mandatory Covid isolation

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Several German states to drop Covid masks on public transport in February

A number of German states are set to remove mandatory masks on public transport at the start of February, while the Health Minister has indicated that masks on long-distance trains could end sooner than expected.

Several German states to drop Covid masks on public transport in February

Berlin, Brandenburg, Thuringia, Saxony and Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania will end the obligation to wear a medical mask on public transport in the coming weeks. 

Wearing an FFP2 mask on public transport is one of the few remaining Covid-19 rules that Germany has kept in place, though the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and right-wing CDU/CSU parties have in recent weeks been pushing for an end to the measure.

With many experts declaring an end to the pandemic, states have also been moving in their own direction, with Bavaria, Saxony-Anhalt and Schleswig-Holstein all removing the mask-wearing rule and another group of states – including Baden-Württemberg and Lower Saxony – opting to amend their self-isolation guidelines. 

READ ALSO: Will Covid measures end sooner than expected in Germany?

In addition to scrapping compulsory masks on public transport, Thuringia is set to follow this group of five states in ending compulsory self-isolation for people who test positive for Covid. Both isolation and mask-wearing on local buses and trains will end in the eastern state on February 3rd. 

In Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania, the federal cabinet decided on Tuesday to end the obligation to wear masks in public transport. The rule will be dropped on February 2nd – the same time that Berlin and Brandenburg are planning to drop masks on local buses, trams and trains. 

Following consultations with experts, Saxony’s cabinet also agreed on an end to the compulsory wearing of masks in local public transport, which will come into force on Monday. Instead, the wearing of a mask in buses and trains will be “strongly recommended”.

“Covid protection measures may only be justified with corona-related overloads of the health system,” said Saxony’s Health Minister Petra Köpping (SPD). “Many pandemic indicators are currently painting a positive picture.”

READ ALSO: When will German states drop compulsory masks on public transport?

Masks could end ‘sooner than expected’

Under the current version of the Infection Protection Act, masks will be compulsory on long-distance public transport like coaches and ICE trains until at least April 7th, though states can decide for themselves whether to keep them on local or regional transport. 

However, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) told Stern on Wednesday that an early end to compulsory masks in long-distance transport and in health care facilities could be possible.

“It is possible that we will abolish the mask requirement earlier,” he explained. “But I don’t want to commit myself to a date.” Lauterbach said it was important to observe the situation very closely and then evaluate it.

READ ALSO: Calls to end Covid measures as top German virologist declares pandemic ‘over’

“It is still too early,” he added. “We still have full clinics and staff shortages.”

Though the current version of the Infection Protection Act doesn’t expire until April, the federal government could still change the rules by decree.

Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP) urged Lauterbach to use this mechanism to end the current Covid measures in a letter sent to his office at the end of December.