‘The German government has sent the wrong signal by relaxing coronavirus lockdown’

A top German virologist has slammed the government for easing rules in place to stall the spread of coronavirus, warning of a second wave of infections.

'The German government has sent the wrong signal by relaxing coronavirus lockdown'
People enjoying the sun in a park in Berlin on Wednesday. Photo: DPA

Virologist Melanie Brinkmann of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Braunschweig, told Spiegel that relaxing some lockdown measures leads people to think the coronavirus crisis in Germany is coming to an end.

“People are now seeing that some measures are being relaxed, and this gives them the impression that they will soon be able to return to normal life.” said Brinkmann.

However, there is no chance of that happening anytime soon, she said.

“The government has sent the wrong signal with the relaxation, and I am afraid that many people are now no longer taking the virus so seriously and are having more contact with other people again,” said Brinkmann.

“If that happens, we will soon be back to where we started.”

Contact restrictions, including a ban on gatherings of more than two people outside, are still in place in Germany up to and including May 3rd but public life is gradually reopening.

But scientists have been saying the country should not move too quickly.

Virologist Christian Drosten, warned in an NDR podcast that a second wave of infection could hit Germany with even greater force than the first. The virus “continues to spread” even with measures in place he said.

READ ALSO: 'Let's not risk a setback': Merkel warns against easing Germany's coronavirus rules too quickly

Brinkmann agrees.

“If we take it lightly now, this is exactly the scenario that will happen, yes: we will get a second wave of infection, which will be even more severe than the previous one because it will take place throughout the country and will be less localised, as was the case with the first wave,” she said.

Brinkmann said the relaxing of measures would “probably” result in the infection rate rising above one again – “then we will have exponential growth again, which will be very difficult to control,” she said.

“From a virological point of view, there is no basis for easing the lockdown right now. Intelligent adaptation, yes, but all in all we cannot afford a resurgence of infection rates. After all, we still don't have any tools (vaccine or treatment) with which we can counter the virus if it picks up again.”

READ ALSO: Each corona-hit person infecting 'fewer than one' in Germany

App needed for life in corona times

Brinkmann said Germany was “lagging behind” when it comes to digital ways of dealing with the pandemic, and said the country needed to relax data protection laws for a limited period during the pandemic.

“For me, the (coronavirus) app pared with consistent behaviour of the population is currently the only way to keep the pandemic under control,” she said.

“So we should all continue to behave as we have done in the past few weeks. As a rule of thumb you should only meet with a small circle of people on a regular basis.

“As long as you can trace the contacts, this helps a lot to stop infection chains from forming.”

So at what point can we start thinking about going on party holidays with a group of friends?

For Brinkmann there is only one answer: “When there is a vaccine,” she said.

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Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

Bavaria's state premier Markus Söder (CSU) has announced plans for a "prompt" end to mandatory masks on buses and trains.

Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

If infection levels and hospitalisations remain low, the end of the mask-wearing rule could come as soon as December or January.

“We are convinced that the mask requirement in public transport could also be phased out either in mid-December or early next year, if the numbers remain reasonably stable and there are no new mutations,” Söder explained on Monday, following a meeting with the CSU executive committee. 

A decision on when to end the measure would be made “promptly”, he added.

The CSU politician had said last week that the sinking infection rates meant that compulsory masks were no longer appropriate and that the mandate could be changed to a recommendation. 

No set date for change

The latest version of Bavaria’s Infection Protection Act – which lays out an obligation to wear masks on public transport as one of the few remaining Covid rules – is currently due to expire on December 9th.

State ministers could decide whether to let obligatory masks on buses and trains lapse on this date as early as next week, or they could decide to initially extend the legislation and set an alternative date for ending the rule.

Regardless of their decision, FFP2 masks will continue to be mandatory on long-distance public transport until at least April next year, when the nationwide Infection Protection Act is due to expire.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

Speaking to Süddeutsche Zeitung on Monday after the meeting of the Council of Ministers, Florian Herrmann (CSU), head of the State Chancellery, confirmed that Covid-19 had been discussed in passing.

However, no decisions or discussions were made on how to proceed after the expiry of the regulation, he said.

According to Herrmann, the fact that Covid was no longer the “dominant topic” in the cabinet under “enormous tension” shows “that we are returning to normality” in a gradual transition from pandemic to endemic. 

As of Wednesday, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 people stood at 108 in Bavaria, down from 111 the previous day. However, experts have cast doubt on how meaningful the incidence is in light of the fact that fewer people are taking tests.

Nevertheless, the 133 hospital beds occupied by Covid patients in the Free State falls well below the 600 threshold for a ‘red alert’. With Omicron causing less severe courses of illness than previous variants, politicians have increasingly focussed on hospitalisation statistics to gauge the severity of the situation.

‘A risk-benefit trade-off’

Bavaria is the second federal state to announce plans to relax its mask-wearing rules in recent weeks.

On November 14th, the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein announced that it would be ending obligatory FFP2 masks on public transport and urged other states to do the same. From January 2023, masks on public transport will only be recommended rather than mandated for passengers on local buses and trains. 

However, the Federal Ministry of Health has urged states not to loosen their rules too quickly.

Given that infection rates are likely to spike again in winter, “there’s no basis for loosening restrictions”, said Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD).

Physicians are also split on whether an end to masks on public transport is appropriate.

READ ALSO: Will Germany get rid of masks on public transport?

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) speaks at the German Hospital Day in Düsseldorf on November 14th. Lauterbach is against the lifting of the mask-wearing rule. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Christoph Spinner, a virologist at the University Hospital in Munich, told Süddeutsche Zeitung he believed it was time to put the decision on mask-wearing back into the hands of individuals.

“Why not? The incidences are low, the danger of Covid-19 has dropped significantly and mortality has also decreased,” he said. 

But the Bavarian General Practitioners’ Association spoke out against the move, arguing that – unlike a trip to a restaurant or cinema – people often have no choice but to travel on public transport.

“If the obligation to wear a mask in public transport is maintained, this will help to protect against a Covid infection on the way to work by bus or train – especially in view of the discontinuation of the obligation to isolate in the event of a Covid infection,” they explained.

Bavaria is one of four states to have recently ended mandatory isolation for people who test positive for Covid. Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein both scrapped their isolation mandate last week, while Hesse removed its obligation on Tuesday. 

READ ALSO: Four German states call for end to mandatory Covid isolation