Should Germany’s lockdown be tightened further over virus variants?

Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders are set to meet on Wednesday to talk about the current Covid-19 situation. They look set to extend measures - but some scientists think they should go further.

Should Germany's lockdown be tightened further over virus variants?
A view of Naumburg in Saxony-Anhalt, a state which still has a high number of Covid-19 cases. Photo: DPA

While schools, shops and hairdressers have been allowed to reopen in neighbouring Austria, the coronavirus lockdown measures in Germany are likely to be extended – at least until the end of the month.

But as calls for a clear plan out of the shutdown grow, experts are warning that the declining case numbers could be deceptive.

Social Democrat health expert and politician Karl Lauterbach warned against relaxing measures too soon – and even suggested tightening up measures.

Lauterbach said on Twitter that an “extremely difficult” decision was coming up at the meeting between Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders. People in Germany will be expecting restrictions to be relaxed because the number of cases is falling, he said

But he warned the country should seriously think about tightening up measures because of a possible “third wave” caused by a “turbo virus”.

READ ALSO: Calls grow for Germany to offer 'step by step' plan out of lockdown

He calculated that with the current spread of the mutants, the number of cases would only fall until the end of February, and then a third wave of the pandemic would arrive.

The health expert referred to analyses that suggested the decreasing case numbers were deceptive because the new, more infectious virus mutant B 1.1.7 was spreading faster. Recently, virologist Melanie Brinkmann warned in a Spiegel interview that these mutations would “overrun us”.

Lauterbach said: “I arrive at similar results in my own calculations. I assume a growth rate of +35 percent/week today, which corresponds to an increased R-value (reproductive number) of about 40 percent.

“Then we would have approx. 20 percent B117/B1351 as of today. Case numbers will then drop until the end of February, then the 3rd wave.”

Lauterbach called for “courage and transparency” from leaders. The worst solution would be to wait until the third wave arrives because lost time cannot be recovered, he said.

'Situation far from under control'

On Tuesday the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported 3,379 new Covid-19 infections and 481 deaths within 24 hours. The number of new infections per 100,000 people in seven days stood at 72.8. The aim is to get this incidence under 50.

But the numbers still vary greatly between states. In Thuringia on Tuesday there was an average of 134.9 new cases per 100,000 residents in seven days and in Saxony-Anhalt that number was 106.1.

At the other end of the scale Baden-Württemberg recorded 59.6 new cases per 100,000 people in seven days on Tuesday, and in Berlin the incidence was 62.

According to German media site Focus, internal circles in the Robert Koch Institute are also discussing a possible new surge in case numbers culminating in another emergency – like the peak in December – by the end of March at the latest.

Before Christmas there were nearly 200 new cases per 100,000 people in seven days.

Instead of loosening the rules, some in the RKI are also calling for further tightening of the rules.

Experts believe the contact restrictions are not being implemented properly by many people, family and friends are not keeping enough distance when meeting, and that there are too many day trips.

Transmission of the virus without symptoms is one of the main problems of the pandemic, say RKI sources.

Accordingly, RKI boss Lothar Wieler warned on Friday against easing the rules too quickly.

“The situation is far from under control,” he said.

Meanwhile, virologist Alexander Kekulé said in a Welt interview that he doesn't believe the mutation alone is responsible for a change in dynamics.

“It is easier for politicians to say: 'I didn't do it, the mutant did',” Kekulé said. He said that paves the way for leaders to blame the variants rather than pandemic management.

“For me, roughly speaking, 90 percent of these outbreaks are explained by poor corona management and ten per cent by the new variants,” he said.

According to the expert, the new variants can only spread widely “if there is an open gap in the defence concept”.

Kekulé added: “Where they have spread, protective measures had always been relaxed shortly before.”

READ ALSO: German government dampens hopes of relaxing lockdown ahead of crunch talks

Some scientists in Germany, however, have called for an end to lockdown measures and a new strategy in dealing with the pandemic.

This could involve opening up schools and some businesses with extensive testing and while protecting vulnerable people and those in old people's homes, for example.

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Bavaria pushes for stricter Covid regulations in autumn

Health ministers across Germany's 16 states are debating the government's new Covid plan - and politicians in Bavaria say they want more clarity.

Bavaria pushes for stricter Covid regulations in autumn

On Tuesday, federal and state health ministers planned to discuss the Covid protection proposals for autumn and winter presented last week by Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) and Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP).

However, some states and politicians are not satisfied with the plans. 

Under the proposals, masks will remain mandatory in air and long-distance transport, as well as clinics, nationwide. But federal states will be able to choose themselves whether to introduce further measures like mandatory masks on public and regional transport.

States will also have the power to take tougher Covid measures if the situation calls for it, such as mandatory masks indoors, but lockdowns and school closures have been ruled out. 

READ ALSO Masks and no lockdowns: Germany’s new Covid plan from autumn to Easter

The draft law states that there can be exceptions from wearing masks in indoor spaces, such as restaurants, for recently Covid-vaccinated or recovered people. 

But Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek (CSU) told DPA that these planned exemptions were not justified because vaccinated and recovered people can still transmit infections. “There are clear gaps in the current draft law,” said the CSU politician.

Dominik Spitzer, health policy spokesman for the FDP parliamentary group in the Bavarian state parliament, also questioned this exception, saying the rules “simply made no sense”.

“With the current virus variant, that would be impossible to convey, since even vaccinated people can continue to carry the virus,” the FDP politician told Bavarian broadcaster BR24. 

The coalition government’s graduated plan under the new Infection Protection Act, is set to be in force from October 1st until April 7th next year. 

The powers for the states are a first step, “but they do not go far enough for us”, Holetschek added, while calling for some points to be tightened up. “We need strong guidelines for autumn and winter.”

Holetschek said the government needed to tighten up the criteria with which states can adopt and enforce more effective measures to protect against the spread of Covid-19.

READ ALSO: Could Germany see a ‘patchwork’ of Covid rules?

Meanwhile, CDU health politician Erwin Rüddel said Germany was on the “wrong track” and the country should find “a completely different approach” to Covid policy than it has so far.

He accused the coalition government of being in “panic mode” and said he doubted the Bundestag would pass the proposals.

“I believe, there will be significant changes (to the draft)”, he said.

But the chairperson of the doctors’ association Marburger Bund, Susanne Johna, backed the plans.

“The proposal for the new Infection Protection Act gives the states sufficient possibilities to react adequately to the infection situation,” Johna told the Rheinische Post on Tuesday.

“The states can take regionally adapted measures to protect people if the need arises. I can’t understand why this concept is being called into question right away.”