Germany is to relax its quarantine rules while bringing in additional restrictions for restaurants and bars, federal and state leaders agreed on Friday, in response to fears of a surge in coronavirus cases.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the premiers of the nation’s 16 states decided to exempt certain people from quarantining if they come into contact with someone who has caught the virus.
This includes people who have recently received a second or third vaccine shot and people who have recently recovered from infection, according to a paper released following the videoconference.
The length of quarantine will also be reduced to 10 days, with the option of getting out from day seven if the person tests negative. Currently, quarantine lasts up to 14 days depending on a number of factors.
Scholz and the state leaders also agreed to tighten entry requirements for bars and restaurants. Under the plans, people will need to get tested before dining out, unless they have received their booster shot against the coronavirus.
Speaking after the meeting, Scholz said it was to be expected that infection numbers would rise as a result of the Omicron variant.
“It is evident that Omicron will keep us busy for a long time, and for that reason we cannot give the all-clear to our health system,” the chancellor said.
He issued a renewed appeal for people to get their shots. “We need further progress with vaccinations,” he said, adding that the current rate of just under 72 per cent vaccinated with two shots and just under 43 per cent with a third booster shot was too low.
Two states expressed scepticism at the new restrictions.
10 Saxony-Anhalt Premier Reiner Haseloff said in the state capital of Magdeburg that virtually all the infections in the state were of the Delta variant and that this meant that new measures were not required.
And Bavarian Premier Markus Söder said his state would investigate whether the vaccinated or recovered plus tested rule was really necessary.
“We are very, very cautious and sceptical on this,” he said in Munich, adding that a decision would be taken on Tuesday.
Ralph Brinkhaus, head of the opposition CDU/CSU in the Bundestag, was not convinced by what was agreed on Friday.
“I have my doubts whether we can get the Omicron wave under control with the measures we have decided,” Brinkhaus told Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland media group.
But the hospitality industry trade union NGG welcomed the new rules for dining out.
“It is good that there are uniform regulations and that the hospitality industry is not completely locked down,” NGG chairman Guido Zeitler told the newspapers of the Funke media group in remarks published Saturday.
The new regulations also spelled more security for guests and employees, Zeitler asserted.
Entry to bars and restaurants is already restricted, with access limited to those who are vaccinated or recently recovered from the virus. This rule will remain in place.
Ahead of the videoconference, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach had identified the restaurant business as “a problem area,” explaining in an interview with broadcaster RTL that “you often sit for hours without a mask.”
Friday’s meeting was the state premiers’ first of the year. The regional leaders have met regularly throughout the pandemic in a bid to coordinate their response, although there is often a patchwork of rules across the country due to Germany’s federal division of powers.
The meeting came amid fears that Omicron could bring key parts of the German economy and society to a halt.
Several state health authorities have reported that the highly contagious variant is now dominant in their regions.
Infection numbers have been creeping up across the country recently. The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) has warned that the actual numbers may be much higher due to the Christmas lull.
On Thursday, the RKI said 56,335 new cases had been registered during a 24-hour period, about 15,000 more than a week ago.
The daily death toll was down slightly on the previous week at 264, however. So far, 113,632 people have died in Germany after catching the coronavirus, according to RKI data.
Photo EPA-EFE/FILIP SINGER