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Germany expands COVID-19 travel tests

August 17, 2020

Despite some mishaps, the COVID-19 testing procedure for travelers returning to Germany from high-risk areas is going well. But the debate remains: who should foot the bill?

Test center at Hamburger Airport
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Bockwoldt

The coronavirus testing center at Berlin's Tegel Airport was running smoothly on Sunday, until a family came to be tested for the virus — despite the fact that their flight from Turkey had landed over a week ago.

It seems the father of the family insisted they be tested because his children were to return to day care the following day, and the center required a negative test. They didn't understand why it wasn't possible, and after a brief scuffle with airport staff the testing center was shut down three hours ahead of schedule, even though there were still some flights expected from high-risk areas.

But it was business as usual again on Monday, as passengers lined up to be tested in the hot sun. Security staff were on hand to make sure the situation didn't get out of control, answering questions and showing people the way to the testing center. 

Read more: Coronavirus rallies: Germany's growing anti-lockdown movement

Avinoam Shalem and his wife, Elisabeth Rochau-Shalem, who had just flown in from New York, told DW they had already tested negative in the US. But they preferred to be on the safe side, and so had decided to get tested again in Germany. Shortly after their arrival in Berlin, they'd received a form with a digital code that they presented at the testing center. The test itself only took 15 minutes. "It was all very professional," Rochau-Shalem said afterward.

Travelers prefer airport testing

Earlier this month, Health Minister Jens Spahn announced that all travelers returning to Germany from high-risk areas would have to be tested for COVID-19. The list of high-risk countries, issued by the Robert Koch Institute, Germany's public health agency, is regularly updated once case numbers pass a certain threshold.

If vacationers suddenly find that their holiday destination has been categorized as a high-risk zone while they're abroad, they can decide to take a test there within 48 hours of returning to Germany. Tests in Germany can be done at either the airport or certain railway stations, or at a doctor's office within three days of arrival.

Read more: With EU open for travelers, who can go where?

Most travelers seem to prefer the airport option. In North Rhine-Westphalia, some 48,500 travelers have been tested so far, with 960 testing positive for COVID-19. Of the 123,000 people tested in Bavaria, 1,730 have tested positive — though not everything has gone smoothly there. Authorities are currently searching nationwide for 46 people who apparently tested positive upon return from holiday, but who failed to leave their contact details. 

Who should pay for COVID-19 tests?

The mandatory tests have triggered a heated debate about who should foot the bill. Health insurance companies are currently covering the costs, but they are due to be reimbursed from state coffers.

"Travelers coming in from high-risk areas should at least contribute to the cost of the tests," Berlin Mayor Michael Müller told the Sunday edition of the daily Bild newspaper. Konstantin Kuhle, the interior affairs spokesman for the business-friendly FPD, agreed with Müller.

"Anyone who is still traveling to Mallorca or other high-risk areas should have to pay for their coronavirus test themselves," he told Bild.

However, Spahn continues to back the free tests, arguing that people will avoid COVID-19 checks if they have to pay for them. His stance highlights the federal government's concern that returning vacationers could cause the number of infections to spike.

Read more: How coronavirus pandemic has spurred change in Germany

'Test should remain free'

At Tegel, Avinoam Shalem agreed with Spahn, saying it wasn't a "good idea" to charge travelers. Veli Ulusu, who had just flown in from Istanbul, thought the same. "It's simply too expensive, especially for families with many children. The test should remain free," he told DW. He, at least, didn't have to join the line for his coronavirus scan, having already received a negative test from the Turkish health authorities.

The government's recent decision to designate nearly all of Spain a high-risk area, except for the Canary Islands, will only exacerbate this debate. Up until last week, only certain parts of the Mediterranean country had been considered high-risk, but now the Balearic Islands are also on the list — including Mallorca, which is particularly popular with German holidaymakers. Now everyone who returns home from Spain will have to be tested, further increasing the pressure at airport testing centers.

Thurau Jens Kommentarbild App
Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau
Volker Witting
Volker Witting Volker Witting has been a political correspondent for DW-TV and online for more than 20 years.