Germany set to prolong lockdown measures as Covid-19 vaccine row intensifies

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders are set Tuesday to extend a shutdown in Europe's top economy where the coronavirus vaccine rollout faces mounting criticism.

Germany set to prolong lockdown measures as Covid-19 vaccine row intensifies
A sign says 'stay healthy' at the Theater am Aegi in Hanover. Photo: DPA

After Germany's daily deaths surpassed the 1,000-mark for the first time on December 30th, pressure escalated to slow the spread of the disease which has claimed more than 34,000 lives.

Merkel and the premiers of Germany's 16 states are due to meet Tuesday, with regional leaders signalling that they would prolong the current partial lockdown beyond the January 10th deadline, probably until the end of the month.

“Given that infection rates are still too high it will be necessary to extend the restrictions,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said Monday.

FACT CHECK: What's the latest on Covid-19 (and the new variant) in Germany

Michael Kretschmer, premier of Saxony, the state with the highest infection rates in the country, said a continued shutdown was “unavoidable”.

The current rules have seen most shops closed along with schools, restaurants, cultural and leisure facilities, and celebrations over Christmas and the New Year holidays were limited to small gatherings.

Officials say the impact of holiday travel and socialising on the virus's spread will not be known until mid-January but that the figures to date are already deeply worrying.

READ ALSO: How long will Germany's tough lockdown measures be in place?

'Immense challenges'

Government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Monday that with some 5,700 corona patients in intensive care around the country, “hospitals in many places are working close to capacity”.

Spahn said that given such figures, a return to “face-to-face” learning for children was “highly implausible” and called for national guidelines on when and how schools could reopen.

In a New Year's Eve televised address, Merkel had already warned Germans of a hard winter with the virus, stressing “the challenges that the pandemic poses remain immense”.

Germany, the EU's most populous country, fared better than most of its neighbours during the first wave of the pandemic and its death toll is still lower than countries such as Italy, France or Spain.

But epidemiologists say complacency about that relative success and an unwillingness to implement the toughest measures such as widespread curfews likely contributed to an exponential spread of the virus in the autumn.

Since October, the meetings between Merkel and regional leaders to set policy on the coronavirus have been marked by open conflict, with the chancellor pushing for a tougher line against resistance from several states.

READ ALSO: Merkel warns Germany faces difficult times in 2021

Although Merkel's popularity remains high and a large majority of Germans say they are broadly satisfied with her handling of the pandemic, analysts say those differences also undermined faith in the shutdown.

'Great hope'

The country began its vaccination drive on December 26th, and more than 264,000 people have received the first of two jabs.

But German media and even the Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in the government, have slammed what they call a slow rollout, accusing the government of relying too much on joint action with the European Union.

At the start of an election year, SPD leaders have demanded answers from Spahn why “the European Commission ordered so few vaccines” and “Germany did not order the doses unclaimed in the EU”.

READ ALSO: How Germany plans to improve Covid-19 vaccine rollout in January

A poll from Civey institute found that 44 percent of Germans were unconvinced by the government inoculation strategy, while around 40 percent said they were “highly confident” it was the right approach.

Seibert, Merkel's spokesman, insisted the European way was in the German interest, adding that the latest inoculation numbers “give us great hope”.

A Health Ministry spokesman said Germany was to receive a combined total of up to 140 million doses of the BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

“But it was clear from the beginning that supplies would be limited at the start,” he told reporters, blaming a lack of production capacity for the bottleneck.

The government is also examining whether to extend the duration between the two vaccine doses necessary, to allow more people to get their first jab, according to a document from the health ministry seen by AFP.

By Deborah Cole

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Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Since the start of Germany’s Oktoberfest, the incidence of Covid infections in Munich has risen sharply. Though a connection with the festival can’t yet be proven, it seems likely.

Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Two weeks after the start of Oktoberfest, the Covid numbers in Munich have more than tripled.

On Sunday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported an incidence of 768.7 for the city of Munich, though updated figures for the end of the festival are not expected until later in the week. Usually, on weekends and public holidays, there is a delay in reports.

In the entire state of Bavaria, the incidence value on Sunday was 692.5.

According to Munich’s public health officer, Beatrix Zurek, bed occupancy in Munich hospitals has also increased. Two weeks ago, 200 beds in Munich were occupied by Covid patients, whereas there are now around 350.

Though a relationship between the sharp rise in infections with Oktoberfest, which ended on Monday, can’t be proven at the moment, it seems very likely, according to experts. A significant increase in Covid incidences has also been shown at other public festivals – about one and a half weeks after the start. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s famed Oktoberfest opens after two-year pandemic hiatus

After a two-year break due to the pandemic, around 5.7 million visitors came to this year’s Wiesn according to the festival management – around 600,000 fewer than at the last Oktoberfest before the pandemic in 2019, when there were 6.3 million.

Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) took to Twitter to comment on the rise in incidence in Munich during the Oktoberfest. “This would not have been necessary if self-tests had been taken before admission,” he said.

“Compared to the price of a measure of beer, €2-3 (for tests) wouldn’t have mattered,” he said.

Even before the start of the Wiesn, he had spoken out in favour of people taking voluntary self-tests. Lauterbach stressed that now is the time for special measures against Covid.

“The development shows what will happen if the states wait too long with the mask obligation in indoor areas,” he added.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

In neighbouring counties, where many Oktoberfest visitors came from, the number of Covid cases has also risen noticeably.  Beatrix Zurek said that it is unclear, however, how much of a role Oktoberfest played in these figures, as people are currently much more active socially overall, with concerts and other events also taking place throughout the state.

Christoph Spinner, an infections specialist at Munich’s Klinikum, has urged people not to be alarmed by the rising numbers.

“We had expected rising incidences here. We knew that there could be a doubling, tripling, even quadrupling,” he said.

He said that this is no cause for concern, as many people have been vaccinated or have also recovered from previous Covid infections, so any new infections are therefore usually mild.

The virologist advises people over 60 or with pre-existing conditions to get a second booster vaccination, but otherwise said people shouldn’t be alarmed by the rising incidences.