Germany extends Covid-19 lockdown measures to March 7th

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government agreed to continue the shutdown put in place to fight the coronavirus pandemic until at least March 7th.

Germany extends Covid-19 lockdown measures to March 7th
Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday evening after the talks. Photo: DPA

Earlier on Wednesday the federal government had pushed for an extension of the current shutdown to March 14th.

But several state premiers called for it to end earlier on March 7th.

Merkel told reporters after the crunch talks with state leaders that Covid-19 infections in Germany were coming down after more than three months of tough restrictions.

“When we look at this development we can be quite satisfied,” she said.

But she called on people in Germany to be patient as fears grow over more contagious virus variants first detected in Britain and South Africa.

“We want to do everything in our power so that we don't end up riding an up-and-down wave of openings and closures,” Merkel said, calling the period until mid-March “existential” for Germany's management of the pandemic.

The new strains “are spreading especially quickly and require significant additional efforts”, the government said in conclusions agreed at the meeting.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What will Germany's plan to extend lockdown measures involve?

Under Germany's federal system, regional states have significant decision-making powers and some have strayed from the government line in the past to loosen some restrictions.

The text stresses that schools and daycare centres should be “the first to gradually reopen”, but that it is for individual states to decide how and when that happens.

After the announcement, Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller said the capital would begin partially reopening schools from February 22nd, with other regions expected to follow suit.

The conclusions call on Health Minister Jens Spahn to review whether nursery workers and teachers can be given higher priority in vaccinations.

Hairdressers will, however, be able to reopen on March 1st, regardless of the lockdown extension, provided they adhere strictly to hygiene regulations.

It also raises the prospect of museums, galleries and some services restarting once the virus incidence rate falls to 35 new cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period.

Previously the government had aimed for an incidence of 50 new infections per 100,000 people in seven days for restrictions to be eased. But this goal appears to have been changed due to fears over the virus variants.

With an eye to an outbreak of the South African variant in the Austrian region of Tyrol bordering Germany's Bavaria state, Merkel said she had conveyed her “concern” to Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Wednesday.

Covid-19 deaths still at high level

Germany closed restaurants, hotels, culture and leisure centres in November, before adding schools and non-essential shops to the list in December. The measures were later extended to February 14th.

Under the current contact rules which will stay in place, households are allowed to meet with one other person. The government has urged people to reduce contact to the minimum.

Since December, new Covid-19 cases have dropped considerably and the seven-day incidence rate has fallen below 75 for the first time since November.

The figure is currently at 68, down from 111 at the last such meeting on January 28th, Merkel said.

But Covid-19 deaths remain troublingly high, and hospitals say they are still close to capacity.

Germany on Wednesday added another 8,072 coronavirus cases, bringing the total to just under 2.3 million.

Almost 63,000 people have died in total, according to Germany's Robert Koch Institute for disease control.

Although a majority of Germans still back Merkel's science-based management of the crisis, fatigue is setting in after three long months of restrictions and amid a sluggish vaccine rollout.

A YouGov poll this week showed that just half of Germans wanted current measures to be maintained or tightened, down from 65 percent in early January.

Merkel said she and state leaders would meet again on March 3rd to fine-tune the policy on restrictions.

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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.”