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‘We have a long way to go’: Merkel fails in new curbs bid as Germany’s Covid-19 infections stabilise

Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday failed to push through additional curbs to combat the coronavirus, as she said ongoing restrictions have helped to halt a runaway rise in infection numbers.

'We have a long way to go': Merkel fails in new curbs bid as Germany's Covid-19 infections stabilise
Angela Merkel on Monday. Photo: DPA

Speaking after talks with the leaders of Germany's 16 states, Merkel said the country had managed to “break the dynamic of new infections” after restaurants, leisure facilities and cultural sites were ordered to close from the start of November.

But she said state premiers did not have any appetite to up the ante and introduce tougher curbs to not only stabilise but also bring down infection numbers.

“We still have a long way to go but the good news is that we have halted the exponential growth for now,” Merkel told reporters.

The veteran chancellor had earlier sought to agree further measures such as halving class sizes and having all pupils wear masks during lessons.

Europe's biggest economy began a new round of shutdowns in November, set to last for four weeks and closing restaurants, cultural venues and leisure facilities to curb transmission of Covid-19.

But while new cases are plateauing at below 20,000 a day, the numbers are still too high for officials to keep track of the infection chain and thereby break the transmission.

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Plea to reduce contacts

During talks to take stock of the situation, Merkel renewed her plea to Germans to dramatically restrict their contacts.

“Every contact that does not take place helps to fight the pandemic,” she said.

That means limiting contacts to an “absolute minimum” and socialising with just one other household, the text agreed by the federal and regional governments says.

All private parties should also be cancelled, it adds. Citizens should also avoid unnecessary private trips and day trips for tourists, as well as visits to areas frequented by lots of members of the public.

The document urges anyone with signs of a cold to self-isolate until they are free of symptoms, and to contact their doctor, particularly in case of a fever or a loss of taste or smell.

The government will also offer particularly vulnerable people such as the elderly, the sick or those with pre-existing conditions reduced-price FFP2 masks from December onwards to protect against the virus.

Christmas hopes

But the final version of the text left out other proposals, backed by Merkel, that would have seen stricter rules imposed in schools and daycare centres.

A decision on plans for how to stop the spread in schools will likely be taken in future. “At the next conference, the federal government and states will discuss how to reduce the risk of infection in schools in hotspots,” Merkel explained.

The question of whether restaurants, cultural facilities or fitness studios can reopen in December also remains unanswered at this point.

Leaders of several states pushed back against Merkel, insisting on holding off on fresh curbs to allow more time to gauge the impact of the current month-long shutdowns.

Merkel and the state premiers will meet again on November 25th when new decisions are expected, as well as a rough plan for December and January.

Bavarian premier Markus Söder, speaking at the same press conference, said he had “little hope that everything will be fine at the end of November”.

It's therefore “better to prolong the measures than to stop them prematurely”, he said.

Merkel has repeatedly warned Germans to brace for a difficult winter but has also held out hope that families would be able to gather for Christmas.

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Germany fared relatively well in the first wave of the pandemic, but numbers have dramatically shot up in the autumn.

In recent weeks, the country has registered record new daily infections, repeatedly crossing the 20,000 mark.

On Monday, the Robert Koch Institute for disease control reported 10,824 new cases over the last 24 hours, bringing total infections to date to 801,327.

Some 12,547 people have died from the virus so far.

The 7-day incidence on Sunday was 143 cases in seven days per 100,000 inhabitants. The German government's aim is to reach an incidence of 50. At that number it is possible to trace individual contacts of people infected.

The number of people in intensive care in hospital has also climbed at an alarming rate, from around 360 in early October to more than 3,300 now.

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COVID-19

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany. 

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