Why Germany has coronavirus infections under control despite relaxing restrictions

Restrictions to stem the spread of coronavirus are being lifted across Germany’s 16 states. But the crisis has remained relatively stable. Why? And is there still the risk of a second wave of infections?

Why Germany has coronavirus infections under control despite relaxing restrictions
A restaurant in Munich with tables that have to be kept free for social distancing. Photo: DPA

Going to a restaurant, the hairdressers or a clothes shop used to be an everyday occurrence that no-one really thought twice about. 

But then the pandemic hit, and residents in Germany were told not to leave their homes unless it was for essential reasons, such as exercise or to buy food. 

But in the last month the lockdown rules have been relaxed, and we are now allowed to carry out previously forbidden activities – like relaxing in a cafe – although rules, such as the 1.5 metre distance from others, do apply. 

So far, this has not led to a large increase in new infections, although scientists feared that could happen.

Germany’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for disease control has been notified of around 300 to 600 new daily coronavirus cases in the last few days. It's a huge drop compared to the beginning of April when about 6,000 people in Germany were contracting coronavirus on a daily basis.

So why is the situation stable despite the restrictions being eased?

READ ALSO: Coronavirus in Germany: Which restrictions are changing from Monday May 25th?

Importance of R number

The so-called reproduction rate (known as R0) plays an important role in assessing the occurrence of infection. It indicates how many people a person with coronavirus goes on to infect on average. 

If it remains below 1, the epidemic slowly dies down. At the beginning of March, the RKI estimated this figure to be around 3: one person with the virus infected an average of three other  people.

However, even before the restrictions were loosened, this number had already dropped to 1, virologist Melanie Brinkmann from the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Braunschweig told German daily Welt

Brinkmann said this was down to people’s behaviour changing before the rules came into force – less people were going out out of fear of catching the virus.

Perhaps they had also stopped hugging friends – and hand washing across the population was becoming more frequent and thorough. 

Brinkmann says that even though the measures have been loosened, many people in Germany are still erring on the side of caution, limiting their contact to people and going to the shops less, for example. 

This is all helping to keep the reproductive number under 1. 

READ ALSO: How worried should we be when Germany reports a higher coronavirus infection rate?

Social distancing 'absolutely crucial'

Epidemiologist Rafael Mikolajczyk from the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg agrees of the role that residents have played.

“One possible explanation is that the increased awareness of the population has led to a significant decrease in transmission by persons with symptoms,” Mikolajczyk told Welt. 

So only people who have no symptoms at all (and are therefore unaware they have it) are transmitting the virus. “As a result, the reproductive rate is lower,” he said.

According to the RKI, the R0 has been between 0.7 and 0.8 in the past few days, which means that on average one person infects less than one other. 

This has allowed Germany to loosen the contact restrictions. Now up to 10 people or members of two households can meet (although 1.5 metre distance has to be maintained, excluding families and same households).

Nevertheless, urging people to cut contact through the lockdown was important in order to quickly reduce the number of infections. If Germany had introduced the coronavirus restrictions later or less strictly, there would now be much higher infection rates, Mikolajczyk argues. 

“If that were the case, there would be no way to relax the restrictions,” he said. But the epidemiologist also points out that much about the spread of the virus is still unknown.

Berlin-based virologist Amr Aswad told The Local that social distancing measures had been – and continue to be “absolutely crucial” in reducing the number of infections.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus: A taste of normality as first restaurants reopen in Germany

He said that people in Germany could help the situation by sticking to strict rules when they can, even when they are not enforced.

“I would say, if anything, the more that we can stick to even stricter rules than the rules are asking of us, the better the situation will pan out,” he said.

“So if you can work at home, work at home. Just because you're allowed to go on the tube (U-Bahn) don't do it all the time. Just because you're allowed to meet another person, don't do it if you don't have to.”

Mask obligation ‘effective’

According to virologist Brinkmann, compulsory masks have also had an effect.

“After opening the first stores, you could see that the R number rose slightly. After the compulsory mask (obligation was introduced), it went down again,” she said.

The first shops were allowed to open after shutdown from April 20th. About a week later, German states made it compulsory to wear face masks in shops and on public transport.

‘Break the first wave’

Virologist Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit believes there are three main reasons for the current low rate of infection: banning large events (in effect until August 31st), the hygiene rules and the observance of the distance rules. 

Some other measures do not have a huge impact, he says. For example, shops are not known to be a hotspot where the virus tends to spread so the focus does not need to be on their closures.

The head of virus diagnostics at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine also said that the strict restrictions in March were necessary. 

READ ALSO: What's the latest on coronavirus in Germany and what do I need to know?

“It was important to break the first wave, and we succeeded,” Schmidt-Chanasit said. 

Germany needed to put in the strict measures so it could gradually learn how and which rules it could loosen after getting the number of infections down.

Danger of second wave still exists

So is the danger averted? Epidemiologist Mikolajczyk warns there could still be trouble ahead.

“The second wave of infection is a very real danger,” he said, adding that the future course of the pandemic depends on political and social developments.

If infection rates rise again, measures must be taken quickly, he added.

According to virologist Brinkmann, it is important that the R value remains below 1 and the number of new infections is low.

For this, infection chains need to be broken by tracing contacts and telling people to quarantine if they have been in contact with someone with the virus. “Then we will be able to prevent a second wave,” she said. 

If the authorities can no longer trace the source of infection, there’s a threat of exponential growth, like what happened in March. 

Whether a second wave comes, and if so, how strong, will depend on how people behave, scientists agree.

“It is important that everyone stays on the ball – only meetings in small groups and wear masks when you are in rooms with people you don't know,” says Brinkmann.

Member comments

  1. Dear writer, not everyone in Germany has the same financial resources as you do to make this statement correct: “Going to a restaurant, the hairdressers or a clothes shop used to be an everyday occurrence that no-one really thought twice about.”

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Masks and no lockdowns: Germany’s new Covid plan from autumn to Easter

Germany has unveiled a draft of new Covid laws to run until April next year, with mask mandates set to remain in force, but lockdowns and school closures ruled out. Here's what we know so far.

Masks and no lockdowns: Germany's new Covid plan from autumn to Easter

The German government has prepared a graduated plan to try and limit the spread of Covid-19 this autumn. Under the new draft Infection Protection Act, states will be allowed to put in place certain rules to protect the population against Covid, from October. 

It was unveiled by the Health Ministry and Justice Ministry on Wednesday. 

Among the plans are for masks to remain compulsory in long-distance transport and in hospitals. They could also be made compulsory in other indoor areas, such as restaurants, but usually with exceptions for those who are recently vaccinated, recovered or tested. 

“If the number of cases rises sharply – masks (can also be enforced) outdoors where distances are not sufficient, and upper limits indoors,” said Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, of the Social Democrats, in a tweet where he showcased the plans. 

How long will the law be in place?

The current Infection Protection Act runs out on September 23rd. The new laws, which form the legal basis for Covid-19 measures in Germany, will apply from October 1st to April 7th 2023.

READ ALSO: Masks and tests: The Covid rules that tourists to Germany should know about

What are the draft plans?

As shown above in the diagram tweeted by the Health Minister in German, the rules have been divided into “”winter tyres” (Winterreifen)  and “snow chains” (Schneeketten), which is meant to represent possible different stages.

There are rules that will apply to the whole of Germany during the autumn/winter and early spring, certain measures that states can bring in, and the option for tougher restrictions if the situation worsens.

Nationwide protective measures from October 1st 2022 to April 7th 2023:

– Mandatory FFP2 masks on airplanes and on long-distance public transport.

– Mandatory masks and testing for access to hospitals and similar facilities, as well as for employees.

– Exceptions to the requirement to provide proof of testing are envisaged for recently vaccinated and recovered people, as well as for people who are being treated in the respective facilities or service providers.

– Exemptions from the mask requirement are provided for some people receiving treatment, for children under six, for people who can’t wear a mask for medical reasons, and for deaf and hard of hearing people.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach wears an FFP2 mask at a conference in June.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach wears an FFP2 mask at a conference in June. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Optional tougher measures for states:

Under the draft plan, states can take additional measures if the pandemic situation requires. These include:

– Mandatory masks on public and regional transport.

– Mandatory masks in indoor spaces such as restaurants and cultural facilities. However, the plans envisage exceptions for people who have tested negatively against Covid, or who have been vaccinated or recently recovered. This could mean that the so-called ‘3G rule’ returns.

– Compulsory testing and/or masks in certain communal facilities (such as shelters for asylum seekers and children’s homes). Compulsory masks in schools would only apply to pupils from the fifth school year onwards.

Extreme measures when situation is critical:

State parliaments can enact even stricter measures if there is a threat of the health system or critical infrastructure becoming overburdened. These include:

– Compulsory wearing of masks indoors – and even outdoors if the minimum distance of 1.5 metre cannot be maintained. An exemption for recently vaccinated, tested or recovered people wouldn’t apply. 

– Mandatory health and safety plans (such as disinfectants and ventilation) for businesses and events in the recreational, cultural and sports sectors.

– Ordering a minimum distance of 1.5 m in public spaces and at outdoor events.

– Upper limits for participants at events in indoor areas.

What else should I know?

Justice Minister Marco Buschmann, of the Free Democrats, said it was important that Germany would not see further lockdowns, but that masks were a key part of the plan. 

“There should only be restrictions on freedom if they are necessary,” said Buschmann. “Our concept therefore rejects lockdowns and curfews.

“Instead, we rely on measures that are both effective and reasonable. Masks protect. And in certain situations, mandatory masks are also reasonable.

Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP)

Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP) gives an interview to DPA on February 3rd. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

“That is why masks will be compulsory in hospitals and nursing homes as well as in long-distance transport. If the pandemic situation so requires, the states can also order compulsory masks for other areas of public life indoors. In culture, leisure, sport and gastronomy, however, there must be exceptions for tested, newly vaccinated and newly recovered persons.”

Buschmann said Germany was also relying on “individual responsibility of civil society – as most other European states do”.

He added that the government was paying “special attention” to schools.

“Children have a right to school education, and a school day that is as carefree as possible,” he said. “Therefore, there must be no school closures. A blanket obligation to wear masks in schools would also not be appropriate.”

What happens next?

The Cabinet will take a look at the proposals before the final draft goes to the Bundestag to be voted on.