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Coronavirus: are Schnelltests the gateway to freedom?

With national infection rates continuing to rise, and experts warning of the growing spread of the British variant, Mutante B.1.1.7, rapid-testing is being put at the heart of Germany’s ongoing fight against COVID-19.

Germany has reached a critical juncture in its handling of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Whilst schools and hairdressers have reopened, most other lockdown measures are remaining in force until the end of March, amongst fears of a possible third wave linked to the spread of the UK variant. Wide-reaching and regular testing has thus become a matter of pressing urgency for politicians and citizens alike.

During a press conference on Friday, Germany’s Health Minister, Jens Spahn addressed concerns about a new rapid testing programme which is set to begin this coming Monday. From 8th March, “all asymptomatic citizens will have the opportunity to take one rapid antigen test a week free of charge” according to the Federal Chancellor and Heads of the Bundesländer.

It should be noted that rapid testing is in itself nothing new. Medical staff and essential workers in Germany have had access to Schnelltests for months now, however the changes which come into force on Monday promise to widen access to all sectors of society, and most notably at no personal cost.

Unlike at-home tests, which are already being sold in some supermarkets, Schnelltests must be carried out by trained staff at either a doctor’s surgery or test centre. With some fearing that this democratisation of tests could lead to staff being overrun next week, people are being encouraged to check local availability and book appointments in advance.

Although some are hailing mass testing as one of the keys to ending lockdown and regaining some semblance of normality, there are others urging for cautiousness: earlier this week, SPD Minister and Professor of Epidemiology, Karl Lauterbach, cited the need for regular rapid testing before any decisions are made regarding the easing of restrictions.

Critics elsewhere remain sceptical about whether enough tests will be available beyond the initial few weeks of the programme, or indeed if tests will be delivered promptly to all regions of the country. On Friday, Spahn nonetheless insisted: “Von diesen Schnelltests sind mehr als genug da […] Die Hersteller sagen uns, dass ihre Lager voll sind“ (“There are more than enough rapid tests available […] Manufacturers have informed us that they are fully-stocked”), reinforcing his earlier message that 800 million rapid tests are already on order, of which 150 million are said to be on hand which he shared on Twitter on Thursday.

Scepticism is not, however, simply limited to issues of supply, as doubts about the reliability of rapid tests continue to mar discussions. According to a study by the RKI, nearly one third of patients who presented a positive PCR test result then proceeded to give a false negative after an additional Schnelltest, which has prompted warnings from some that the public should not be falling into a false sense of security.

It is thus clear that the public should not view rapid testing as the only weapon in the arsenal against COVID-19; regular hand-washing, mask-wearing, social distancing, and a high vaccination turnout remain integral to reducing infection rates and subsequently granting Germany the freedom it so desperately craves.

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