Restrictions ranging from crowd sizes at sporting events to rules regulating proof of vaccination for dining out are set to be lifted in Germany in the coming months as leaders signalled “optimism” about the course of the coronavirus pandemic.
German state and federal leaders agreed on a plan to lift most Covid-19 restrictions on Wednesday, with the final steps to be taken from March 20, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said.
“We can look into the future with more optimism than we could in the last few weeks,” he said.
After ramping up restrictions during an unprecedented wave of infections caused by the Delta and then the Omicron variant, Germany is set to follow several other European countries in making a gradual return to normality.
The three-point plan agreed on Wednesday envisages a stage-by-stage lifting of restrictions for private gatherings, retail outlets and restaurants and hotels. From March 20, all of the “more far-reaching protective measures” are to be dropped.
However, health experts will still call on people to protect themselves – and society at large – with face masks and social-distancing. The question about a vaccine mandate also lingers.
Such a mandate remains the policy of the German government, said Scholz.
“The vaccine mandate is necessary for the next autumn and winter,” he said after announcing the plans, arguing that easing of restrictions only works hand in hand with an expanded vaccination programme.
“It becomes absolutely necessary when the weather gets cold again,” he said of the initiative, which is facing parliamentary blocks in the Bundestag.
He also said that the lifting of the most onerous restrictions does not mean that the government won’t be pushing for certain health standards. He said legislation would soon be forthcoming regarding masks, social-distancing and other measures.
“The pandemic is not over yet and there’s a chance the next variant is around the corner and about to throw up new challenges for us, and then we have to be able to do something.”
That said, he said he could understand why people are chafing against the rules after nearly two full years of lockdowns and myriad guidelines about social interactions, all to fight off a virus.
“There’s a lot of citizens who feel the way I do. We’ve all earned the possibility that it somehow gets better after these two long years. And it looks a little bit like that’s what we now have before us.”
The new policies touch on a variety of health regulations that have been implemented and continually rethought during the last two years. Many have proven unpopular and prompted regular protests, whether by people opposed to the thought of vaccine mandates or others who argue that the restrictions impinge on personal freedoms.
In an effort to counter that, many of the proposals will ease rules, such as measures that: prevented the unvaccinated from entering many stores; required businesses to provide work-from-home options; set entry restrictions keeping the unvaccinated out of hotels and restaurants; and limited personal gatherings to small groups.
But the question remains open whether the easing of the rules will be accompanied by any new measure clarifying federal and state governments’ powers to implement new health guidelines depending on how the pandemic develops.
The national disease control body, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), recently reported several days of declining new infection rates. The number of daily infections remains at well above 200,000, although the hospitalization rate has remained relatively stable at around 6 people per 100,000 over the past week. Some 247 people died with Covid-19 in the past 24 hours.
The legal basis for protection options under the current Infection Protection Act expires on March 19.
“We have to formulate the Infection Protection Act so that a basic level of protection remains safeguarded and can be rolled out if necessary,” Health Minister Karl Lauterbach told dpa. © DPA German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attends a press conference after the meeting of German state and federal leaders. Michele Tantussi/Reuters/Pool/dpa