Analysis: How Germany squandered early Covid-19 success

Long held up as a European success story in the fight against the pandemic, Germany has been hit hard by a second coronavirus wave that has brought record daily infection numbers and deaths.

Analysis: How Germany squandered early Covid-19 success
People in Potsdam on Thursday December 17th during Germany's tighter lockdown. Photo: DPA

With intensive care beds filling up and Germans heading into the Christmas holidays under a partial lockdown, here's a look at what went wrong.

Merkel vs regional leaders

Chancellor Angela Merkel, a scientist, won plaudits during the first wave in the spring for giving Germans clear and fact-based guidance on Covid-19.

Close cooperation with the regional leaders of Germany's 16 states allowed for early and widespread testing and quick action against local outbreaks.

But the country's federal system later turned against Merkel. At a crucial meeting in October, she pleaded in vain for tough new curbs to fight rapidly rising infection numbers.

Many regional leaders, wary of inflicting more financial pain on businesses and nervous about an increasingly vocal anti-mask movement, opposed Merkel and a confusing patchwork of rules emerged.

Merkel at the time declared herself “unsatisfied” but had no power to push through nationwide measures.

As other European countries returned to hard lockdowns, German leaders eventually agreed on a four-week “light” shutdown for November, which kept schools and shops open but closed indoor dining, leisure and cultural centres –  to little effect.

“It was probably the biggest political miscalculation of the year,” Der Spiegel weekly said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: DPA

Crisis talks between Merkel and the regions saw Germany return to a partial lockdown on Wednesday, shutting schools and non-essential shops in addition to the existing restrictions, until at least January 10th.

READ ALSO: Germany's tougher Christmas lockdown rules are the right move – but should they have come sooner?

Weary Germans

Although sometimes gently mocked abroad as sticklers for the rules, not all Germans are showing the same commitment to mask-wearing and social distancing as at the start of the pandemic.

When Christmas markets were cancelled to limit socialising, mulled wine stands popped up that drew large crowds, much to Merkel's dismay.

“During the spring lockdown, we reduced our contacts by 63 percent. Right now, we've only managed 43 percent, which simply isn't enough,” Christian Drosten, one of Germany's best-known coronavirus experts, said recently.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for disease control has said Germans need to reduce their social contacts by at least 60 percent to bring transmission rates back down to a level where contact tracers can keep up with the chain of infection.

The country's coronavirus warning app has been downloaded 23.5 million times. But only around half of users who have tested positive have actually used the app's notification feature.

READ ALSO: Germany sets record of over 30,000 daily new coronavirus infections

Eastern states and the far-right

The worst-hit coronavirus states at the moment are in Germany's former communist East, which also happens to be where the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has the most support.

Among them are the districts of Bautzen and Görlitz in Saxony state, where coronavirus incidence rates now stand at 600 per 100,000 people – more than three times the national rate.

The AfD has in recent months railed against the virus curbs and its members have joined a series of “anti-corona” demos, marching with anti-maskers, conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccination campaigners.

After initially condemning the “hysteria” about surging infection numbers, Saxony premier Michael Kretschmer admitted he “underestimated” the virus and ordered his state into a partial lockdown two days before the rest of Germany.

READ ALSO: Why are coronavirus rates so high in German areas with far-right leanings?

Elderly hardest hit

The head of the RKI, Lothar Wieler, has voiced concern about the rising number of cases and deaths in homes for the elderly.

In the capital Berlin alone, the number of pensioners testing positive for the virus has more than doubled since mid-November, to over 2,000 cases.

Of the more than 24,000 Covid-19 deaths recorded in Germany so far, 87 percent were people aged 69 or over, according to the Statista data agency.

ANALYSIS: Why have the number of Covid-19 deaths in Germany increased so quickly?

Nursing and care homes nationwide have sounded the alarm about a lack of personnel, which they say makes it hard to quickly test and isolate elderly people and their carers. Many also complain about a lack of high-efficiency FFP2 and FFP3 masks at work.

Merkel's government has pledged to provide free FFP2 masks to senior citizens and carers.

 By Mathieu Foulkes

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EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

Due to high Covid infection numbers throughout the summer, it’s now possible to get a sick note from a doctor over the phone again for some illnesses. Here’s what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

What’s happened?

In spring 2020, German authorities changed the law so that people with a mild upper respiratory tract illness, such as the common cold, were able to get an incapacity to work certificate or AU-Bescheinigung by simply calling and speaking to their GP.

The rule was extended several times and finally reversed on June 1st this year due to falling infection figures. Since then people have had to go back to the practice – or do a video call if the doctor’s office has that system in place – to get a sick note.

Now, due to a decision by the Joint Federal Committee, the regulation has been reintroduced and patients can call their GP again for a sick note.

Can I get a sick note over the phone for any illness?

No. As before, the regulation only applies to patients suffering from a mild upper respiratory tract illness. Though Covid has not explicitly been named in the announcement, it seems that it is intended to be covered by the regulation.

If the doctor is convinced that the patient is unfit for work after a telephone consultation, then they can issue a sick note for up to seven days.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The changes around doctor’s notes in Germany you should know

If the symptoms persist after seven days, the certificate can be extended once more for another week.

Why now?

According to the Chairman of the G-BA, Josef Hecken, the regulation has been introduced now as a response to rising Covid numbers and in anticipation of the cold and flu season in the coming months: “We want to avoid full waiting rooms in doctors’ offices and the emergence of new infection chains,” he said.

The telephone sick leave rule is a simple, proven and uniform nationwide solution for that, he said. The rule is also necessary because video consultation hours are not yet available everywhere.

What else should I know?

The health insurer DAK is calling for telephone sick leave in the case of light respiratory diseases to be made possible on a permanent basis in Germany. DAK’s CEO Andreas Storm said that this should “not always be up for debate, because it has proven itself.” 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about making a doctor’s appointment in Germany

The social association VdK also welcomed the reintroduction of the rule. The VdK’s President Verena Bentele said that the regulation would help to protect high-risk groups in particular from potential infections.

What are the rules to know about sick notes in Germany?

Germany has a strict system in place. If you are sick, you need to give your employer a Krankmeldung (notification of sickness) before the start of work on the first day (of your illness).

However, you also need to hand in a Krankschreibung (doctor’s note) on the fourth day of your illness. Some employments contracts, however, require you to submit a sick not earlier than the fourth day so check with your boss or HR on that point.