IN DETAIL: Germany extends coronavirus shutdown and tightens restrictions

Germany will extend its current coronavirus restrictions until early January unless there is a dramatic drop in infections, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday.

IN DETAIL: Germany extends coronavirus shutdown and tightens restrictions
Angela Merkel on Wednesday. Photo: DPA

Speaking after seven hours of talks with the heads of Germany's 16 states, Merkel said the measures introduced in early November, including limits on private gatherings and the closure of bars, restaurants, leisure facilities and cultural sites, cannot be lifted given current infection rates.

The restrictions will be continued “until December 20th first but we assume, however, that … due to the very high incidence of infection, restrictions will have to apply until the beginning of January unless we have an unexpected decrease,” Merkel said.

Merkel said the exponential increase in new infections had come to a halt. “The steeply rising curve has become a flat one, but this is only a partial success. We can by no means be satisfied with this partial success,” she said.

READ ALSO: What can we expect from Germany's meeting on festive rules?

The daily Covid-19 figures remain at a “much too high plateau”, Merkel said at the press conference in Berlin as Germany recorded 18,633 new coronavirus infections in 24 hours.

Merkel stressed that a “strong effort” was needed by the public to get the numbers down. “We still haven't reached our goal,” she said.

In order to ease restrictions, the infection rate would have to come down to below 50 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants per week, Merkel said – a far cry from the current seven-day incidence of almost 140. 

Merkel said the Christmas holidays were “particularly important days” but said the winter period would continue to be a difficult one. She said it was therefore important for people to to avoid all non-essential social contact and travel as much as possible.

It comes as Germany logged a record number of Covid-19 deaths in one day. Health authorities reported 410 new coronavirus-related deaths within 24 hours, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) said on Wednesday, the highest number since the start of the pandemic.

READ ALSO: What is Germany's new coronavirus test strategy for winter?

The main points:

– The government and states have agreed to tighten contact rules. From December 1st, only five adults from a maximum of two households will be allowed to meet (down from 10 people currently). Children under 14 are excluded from this rule.

– From December  23rd to January 1st, the rules will be temporarily relaxed. During this time meetings with a maximum of 10 people are allowed, regardless of the households involved. Again, children up to 14 are not counted.

– There will not be a general ban on fireworks, which had previously been discussed. The government and states “recommend” that people “refrain from New Year's Eve fireworks”. However, the use of fireworks is prohibited in busy squares and streets in order to avoid larger group formations.

– The obligation to wear face masks is to be extended and in future will also apply to the areas outside shops as well as car parks. “The population is encouraged to do their Christmas shopping during the week if possible,” says the decision paper. Shops will also have stricter social distancing rules.

– Bar, restaurants, leisure and cultural facilities will remain shut. Overnight accommodation will continue to be provided only for non-tourist purposes.

– Skiing holidays should be avoided until January 10th. Germany is to discuss this at the EU level to try and coordinate with other countries.

– In order to make travel safer, the number of occupied seats in trains is to be reduced significantly. For the winter months, people should only be allowed to book window seats. At the same time, however, the capacity of the trains should be increased with extra carriages to allow for more space.

– The mandatory quarantine period is to be reduced from 14 to 10 days. This is due to the “increased availability of rapid antigen tests”. This will reduce the burden on citizens and public health authorities, say the government and states.

– Companies should make it possible for employees to work from home, or they should ensure company holidays are possible from December 23rd to January 1st.

– As planned, schools and kindergartens will remain open during the shutdown. Nationwide, the Christmas holidays are to be brought forward to December 19th. From an incidence value of over 50 new infections per 100,000 residents, masks will be compulsory in secondary schools from seventh grade.

Relaxation of rules possible in individual federal states

States will in future be able to decide, depending on the infection situation, whether to relax or tighten measures.

Berlin's mayor Michael Müller said after the consultations that federal states with very good figures now have the opportunity to ease the situation. At the same time, he said, states with high infection rates had a duty to deal with the situation and examine possible tightening of measures.

Another meeting is to be held on December 15th to examine the situation.

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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.