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How Germany has tested thousands of air passengers for coronavirus

While Britain continues to oppose the introduction of coronavirus testing at airports, Germany has nearly doubled its test rate to screen thousands of passengers returning from Covid-19 hotspots abroad.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps today stressed that airport testing was not a ‘panacea’ solution after the UK’s quarantine policy was confused when Portugal was unexpectedly kept on the ‘travel corridor’ list.

But in Germany, which has received praise for its testing program since the start of the pandemic, travelers from high-risk areas have been given mandatory coronavirus testing for free since August 8.

Germany’s busiest airport in Frankfurt has conducted more than 120,000 tests – with passengers exempt from a 14-day quarantine if they test negative.

Results are generally delivered to passengers within three days, with some airports promising them within 24 hours or even the same day.

Mandatory tests will be dropped at the end of the summer, but the recent business resurgence is already showing signs of slowing down in Germany, unlike Spain and France, where they continue to increase.

A German Red Cross employee wearing protective clothing and a face shield takes a smear from a traveler at Hamburg Airport after mandatory testing in Germany

A German Red Cross employee wearing protective clothing and a face shield takes a smear from a traveler at Hamburg Airport after mandatory testing in Germany

Germany’s mandatory tests apply to travelers returning from a list of risk countries, including all of Spain and parts of France, including Paris.

Major airports, including Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg, each have two test centers to screen arriving passengers.

After taking the test, passengers must go home and begin 14 days of isolation – but in most of Germany, quarantine ends as soon as they get a negative result.

People who test positive must complete their 14-day quarantine, while some states require a second negative test within a few days of the first.

Alternatively, passengers can show a negative result from the past 48 hours if it was performed in an approved country, such as Great Britain.

Airports also offer voluntary testing for people coming from lower risk countries such as the Netherlands and some parts of Belgium.

According to radio network RND, Frankfurt Airport has already carried out more than 120,000 tests for the virus.

“As many tests as possible are the best way to uncover infection chains as quickly as possible and to avoid a second lockdown,” says Peter Bauer of test provider Centogene, who conducts screening in Frankfurt.

The German Red Cross also has a testing center in Frankfurt where the results usually come back within 24 hours, sometimes even the same day.

Munich Airport says tests conducted before 3 p.m. will generally yield results on the same day, except on weekends.

Germany’s testing capacity is now as high as 1.2 million a week, the Health Ministry says, less than half of which is being used before airport tests began.

However, the number of tests carried out in Germany almost doubled during the summer holidays to 900,000 per week.

Berlin’s health ministry says local authorities are conducting random checks to enforce the rules, with fines for people who refuse to be tested.

Positive test results are automatically reported to public health authorities and added to the numbers collected by the Robert Koch Disease Institute.

People arriving in Germany by road or rail may also be subject to random checks at any of the country’s nine land borders.

Germany announced last week that the mandatory tests would end when the summer holidays come to an end.

“With the end of the holiday period … this risk diminishes again,” Health Minister Jens Spahn told reporters in Berlin.

“We need to focus more on patients with symptoms and those who have had contact with Covid patients.”

New infections are starting to show signs of decline in Germany after several weeks of increase, unlike Spain and France where they are still increasing

New infections are starting to show signs of decline in Germany after several weeks of increase, unlike Spain and France where they are still increasing

New infections are starting to show signs of decline in Germany after several weeks of increase, unlike Spain and France where they are still increasing

The death toll in Germany remains low with only sporadic days with more than 10 new fatalities

The death toll in Germany remains low with only sporadic days with more than 10 new fatalities

The death toll in Germany remains low with only sporadic days with more than 10 new fatalities

The announcement was criticized by Frankfurt Airport operators, who said it would put further pressure on the airline and travel industry.

But travelers coming from high-risk areas can still exempt themselves from a 14-day quarantine by taking a test and getting a negative result.

When the new rules will take effect is not yet clear, but Germany has already seen signs that the resurgence of virus cases may slow.

Germany saw 8,907 new cases last week, up from 9,411 the week before – the first week-on-week drop since early July.

The Foreign Ministry in Berlin says the rising numbers in recent weeks “often have to do with people returning from abroad and bringing the infection with them.”

The daily average of 1,063 new cases is lower than two weeks ago, and much lower than Spain’s 8,429 or France 5,783.

In addition, recent virus patients are younger than at the start of the pandemic, which means that they are less likely to become seriously ill or die.

The average age of people who tested positive on the week of August 24 was only 33, compared to a peak of 52 in early April.

In Britain, the number of cases has also increased in recent weeks, but the UK government is still downplaying the effectiveness of airport tests.

Mr. Shapps told Sky News that a test on landing “is unlikely to find the vast majority of people who have traveled with coronavirus and are asymptomatic.”

Masked passengers queue at a coronavirus testing center for repeat travelers at Frankfurt Airport, Germany's busiest

Masked passengers queue at a coronavirus testing center for repeat travelers at Frankfurt Airport, Germany's busiest

Masked passengers queue at a coronavirus testing center for repeat travelers at Frankfurt Airport, Germany’s busiest

Adding that airport testing is not a ‘panacea’, Mr Shapps acknowledged that it ‘creates confusion’ that England, Wales and Scotland have different rules.

“I hear the phone calls from the airports and I spoke with John Holland-Kaye, the Heathrow Airport boss and many others last night, it’s not like we’re ignoring the great work they are doing on pilot tests,” he said.

‘But I spoke to my opposite number, for example my French counterpart, they tested it, but of course realized that this is not really the solution.

‘What you should be able to do is continue testing with a period of quarantine.’

When he later discussed airport testing again on Times Radio, Mr. Shapps said he would “absolutely do it today” if he believed it to be effective.

“The scientists tell us it will pick up only about seven percent of cases from scratch on the day,” said Mr. Shapps.

‘It doesn’t mean it’s a pointless thing to do – it’s kind of like walking into a building now and then and they take your temperature – it’s not completely pointless, but it doesn’t tell you authoritatively what to know about it , as it suggests about whether you are a carrier of the coronavirus. ‘

The UK’s quarantine policy is coming under pressure after a number of holidaymakers have come home from Portugal expecting it to be dropped from the UK ‘travel corridor’ list, only for Mr Shapps to announce that there will be no changes were made.

There were 23 new cases per 100,000 people in Portugal in the seven days to Wednesday, up from 15 a week earlier.

Mr Shapps has identified a rate of 20 per 100,000 as the threshold at which the UK is likely to take action.

The minister said the rate of test positivity in Portugal had fallen, meaning no changes were made for England – but Wales has added Portugal to the quarantine list.

Welsh Health Minister Vaughan Gething said he was “very pleased that this is the right thing to do” after seeking advice from the Joint Biosecurity Center.

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