Expert Q&A: ‘Social distancing will be needed in Germany for a very long time’

Germany is starting to ease some lockdown restrictions but many measures remain in place. We spoke to an expert who is part of a coronavirus pandemic advisory council, to gain insight into what's happening and why.

Expert Q&A: 'Social distancing will be needed in Germany for a very long time'
A woman in the city of Hanau wearing a protective face mask. Photo: DPA

Veronika Grimm is part of the German Council of Economic Experts which is advising Chancellor Angela Merkel and the German government on how to handle the coronavirus epidemic.

The Local asked Grimm, who is also Professor of economic theory at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, questions on the German government's coronavirus strategy and what will happen in the coming weeks and months.

READ ALSO: Germany to begin easing coronavirus curbs in coming weeks

The Local: What do you think about the German government's plan to ease some of the coronavirus restrictions?

VG: The decisions point in the direction recommended by the various expert groups that gave advice. They all stated that under certain conditions, social and economic activity should be allowed to resume step by step and always with the highest priority on health protection.

It has to be clear that opening up certain sectors requires good preparation. This concerns availability of protective measures, test capacities, apps for infection tracing and the establishment of general hygiene standards. All this has been emphasized by Chancellor Merkel.

It is also plausible and has been recommended to proceed step by step and to evaluate the progression of pandemic in certain time intervals. This allows time to adjust to the measures taken.

From my point of view, it is now very important to prepare the next steps in all consistency. This includes the preparation of concepts on how schools can be opened to a certain extent.

Also the rule that only shops up to 800 square metres may be opened should be replaced by general guidelines, which must be observed before opening. Only this enables companies to plan and design health protection measures.

Social distancing rules will remain in place for now. How well do you think the German population is managing to follow these restrictions, and can this continue for a long period – or do people tend to get restless?

Social distancing rules will be necessary for a very long time and will become part of our everyday life. It is now important to establish clear framework conditions that enable us to combine health protection and social and economic activities. The more we know about the virus and the better prepared we are, the more successful this will be.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus: How to do social distancing in Germany

Do you think the gradual opening of schools from May 4th is manageable?

From my point of view it is very important to elaborate concepts how to open up the schools, always with the highest priority possible on health protection.

This might imply to switch to small group sizes and to protect teachers belonging to risk groups. It would already be an improvement if children went to school for two or three time slots a week. 

Professor Veronika Grimm is part of the German Council of Economic Experts which is advising Angela Merkel and the German government. Photo courtesy of Veronika Grimm.

Angela Merkel explained how fragile the situation is. What do you think would happen if the number of infections increased in Germany when the measures were eased?

In the upcoming months, we need effective governance that can respond to such developments as quickly as possible. In our group of experts, we have proposed “Corona Task Forces”, which should be composed of experts of all relevant disciplines, both at federal and state level.

These Task Forces could quickly aggregate information available, evaluate it from different perspectives and  make recommendations on sensible adjustments.

As Germany is a federal country, power is devolved to states, as we've seen in particular throughout this crisis. How do you think this impacts the strategy to exit lockdown? For example, is a uniform procedure available to Germany?

Due to the different incidence of infection alone, there must also be regional differences in opening approaches. This could also be done by rules that condition on the current infection occurrence.

The interaction between the federal and state governments is currently working well. It is important that forces and perspectives are bundled in order to combine health protection with economic and social activities as quickly and effectively as possible.

Here, due to the urgency of relaxing the regulations for social and economic reasons, everyone has the same goal in mind.

The coronavirus pandemic is having a huge impact on business. How do you see the months ahead playing out and do you think the government is doing enough to support people and businesses financially?

We will experience a severe economic downturn. The longer many economic activities are at a lockdown, the stronger the dip will be.

Therefore, a next step is important, in which economic activities are permitted under strict health protection precautions – companies can then develop concepts on the basis of which they can become active again.

This will all take a while. Not all companies have been closed by decree, and many have closed down due to lack of demand or interrupted supply chains. It is therefore all the more important that the framework conditions for resuming activity and also the governess to accompany the process are soon in place and communicated.

The government has mentioned an app that could help with contact tracing when it comes to controlling the coronavirus spread. Do you think there would be reservations about it since Germans are known for taking privacy and data protection very seriously?

I indeed hope very much that people will accept this. In this very special situation, the app can enable us to return more quickly to social and economic activities.

READ ALSO: Privacy-mad Germany turns to app to track coronavirus spread

This opportunity should definitely be seized. It will be very important to design the framework conditions in such a way that acceptance is as high as possible. It can only work if many people use the app.

Then you can fish out whole chains of infection, so to speak, if you are fast enough. The prerequisite for this is digitisation in the health care system: here, too, we must be fast.

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German health agency expects number of Covid ICU patients to rise

The Covid pandemic is continuing to cause problems around Germany, with concerns that the number of patients needing treatment will rise in the coming weeks.

German health agency expects number of Covid ICU patients to rise

In its weekly Covid report, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) said that confirmed infections appeared to be rising in some German states, and falling in others.

But experts warned that the situation remained tense, with many infections not reported. 

Therefore, in the coming weeks, “hospitalisations, an increase in intensive care treatment and deaths are to be expected, especially among the elderly”, said the RKI.

People over the age of 80 “continue to be most affected by severe courses of the disease”, the experts said in their report. 

The incidence of infections is continuing to rise for this age group, and the number of outbreaks of Covid-19 in medical treatment facilities as well as in old people’s and nursing homes is going up.

READ ALSO: Which Covid rules are likely to return to Germany in autumn?

The number of patients with Covid-19 being treated in intensive care units (ICUs) is also rising slightly. In the previous week, the number was reported to be around 1,330. And on Thursday July 28th, 1,550 people were in ICUs in Germany with 484 receiving ventilation treatment, according to the DIVI intensive care register. 

The number of deaths in connection with the virus is currently around just over 400 per week. The RKI says this trend is a plateau.

When it comes to the overall picture of Covid in Germany, the RKI said there was a “sideways movement rather than a decreasing trend”.

Last week, the nationwide 7-day incidence decreased slightly compared to the previous week. The overall picture shows falling incidences in most western German states and Berlin, with incidences still rising slightly in the other eastern German states and Bavaria.

The RKI estimates there’s been a total of 800,000 to 1.5 million people with Covid (who also have symptoms) in the past week alone in Germany.

Last week experts warned that they expected the Covid situation to get worse in the coming weeks as many schools in Germany return after the summer break.

READ ALSO: Germany’s summer Covid wave set to get worse

The Omicron sub-variant BA.5, which has dominated in Germany since mid-June, has almost completely displaced other variants. It accounts for 89 percent of samples in the past week, the RKI said.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach warned people against underestimating getting Covid again.

The SPD politician pointed out that it was very easy to become infected with BA.5 – even for those who were infected with a previous type.

He warned that many could become seriously ill or die, plus there’s the risk of picking up Long Covid.

“Therefore, we have to solve the problem not by constant infection, but by better vaccines,” Lauterbach said.

‘Call things as they are’

Lauterbach, meanwhile, defended himself against his choice of words when describing the possibility of a new dangerous Covid variant emerging in autumn. 

In an interview with Bild newspaper in April he said: “It is quite possible that we will get a highly contagious Omicron variant that is as deadly as Delta – that would be an absolute killer variant.”

He was slammed for his dramatic choice of words. 

This week Lauterbach said: “I use few vocabulary that is apocalyptic. But sometimes you have to call things as they are.”

If there were a virus that linked the contagion of the BA.5 variant with the severe course of a Delta variant, “that would be a killer variant”, he maintained.

But he stressed that he had “not said that such a variant is definitely coming, but that we have to be prepared for such a variant”.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister calls on under 60s to get next Covid jab