Germany starts new extended shutdown with tougher measures

The new rules in the extended partial lockdown come into force on Tuesday December 1st.

Germany starts new extended shutdown with tougher measures
A shop in Berlin says only four customers are allowed at one time. Photo: DPA

Tougher contact restrictions with rules eased over Christmas – that's what the extended coronavirus shutdown agreed by the German government and states looks like.

Restaurants, cafes, bars, cultural and leisure facilities will remain closed (except for takeaway food or drink).

Private gatherings indoors and outdoors are now limited to a maximum of five people from your own household and one other household. Children under 14 are excluded from the rule. In November, meetings with up to 10 people from two households were generally permitted.

The extended shutdown started December 1st and will last until at least December 20th, though it's likely it will stretch into early January, Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week.

“We need a renewed effort,” Merkel stressed after the consultations with the state premiers held on Wednesday November 25th.

'Second wave is hitting hospitals harder'

The extension of the measures is to try and get the number of coronavirus infections down to avoid overburdening hospitals and allow contact tracing.

“The number of patients is still rising, but not as strongly as it did a fortnight ago. If this continues, the development would be manageable for hospitals,” the President of the German Hospital Federation, Gerald Gaß, told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper on Tuesday.

Currently, almost 40 percent more patients are being treated in intensive care units nationwide than in spring, said Gaß.

“The second wave of the pandemic is already hitting the hospitals harder. At the moment there are also more (Covid-19) patients in the regular wards.

“This is because progress in treatments is making it possible to prevent a number of coronavirus patients from coming to intensive care units and needing to be ventilated. Overall, the burden on hospitals is very high.”

More rapid tests but no free test after travel

In the fight against the pandemic, more rapid tests are to be used – in nursing homes, clinics, hospitals and, after cases of infection, also in schools.

This is provided for in a new regulation by Health Minister Jens Spahn, which is to come into force this Wednesday.

Rapid tests are available in larger quantities compared to the PCR tests, which take longer to be evaluated. Samples of rapid tests do not have to be taken to labs.

However, these antigen tests are not considered to be as accurate as PCR tests. According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), a positive result of a rapid test must be confirmed by a PCR test.

There are also changes to travel: people returning from coronavirus risk areas abroad will soon no longer be entitled to a free test in Germany.  The free tests will end on December 15th, DPA learned from Health Ministry circles.

What are the other changes?

The contact restrictions coming into force from Tuesday will be slightly relaxed for the days around Christmas. From December 23rd until January 1st, 10 people will be able to meet with family and friends, regardless of which household they come from.

However, some states have slightly different rules. For example in Berlin only five people can meet over the holidays. Schleswig-Holstein, on the other hand, is keeping to its max 10-person contact rule even before Christmas.

Baden-Württemberg also plans to shorten its relaxed-rules period to December 27th.

As was the case in November, schools and daycare centres (Kitas) will remain open. It was agreed that masks would be compulsory in lessons from the seventh grade onwards, depending on the regional virus numbers.

The maximum number of customers in shops has also been more strictly limited since December 1st. In shops with a sales area of up to 800 square metres, there should be a maximum of one person per 10 square metres. In larger shops, the additional space will be limited to one person per 20 square metres of sales area.

The number of new coronavirus infections on Tuesday was at the level of the previous week. The RKI recorded 13,604 cases within 24 hours, compared to 13,554 the previous week.

Within one day 388 people died in connection with the virus, bringing the total number of deaths to 16,636.

There have been a total of 1,067,473 confirmed coronavirus infections in Germany since the start of the pandemic.

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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.