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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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.