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Is Germany heading for a tougher Covid lockdown?

As Covid-19 infections continue to rise in Germany, calls are growing for the country to take tougher action - but states have other plans. What happens next?

Is Germany heading for a tougher Covid lockdown?
People walking in Frankfurt on March 27th. Photo: DPA

After a dramatic week that saw Chancellor Angela Merkel do a U-turn on an Easter lockdown proposal, pressure is growing on the German government to come up with a firm plan to deal with the worsening Covid-19 situation.

However, there are questions over how and if the government can force states to tighten rules – or if a nationwide lockdown can be enforced.

‘We can’t let it go on like this’

Social Democrat health expert Karl Lauterbach, who has become a high profile figure in the pandemic, reiterated that he is in favour of stricter measures.

READ ALSO: ‘We need action’: Merkel urges German states to stick to agreed shutdown rules

He called for a “final hard lockdown” to combat the rising numbers.

On Monday, 9,872 coronavirus infections within the last 24 hours were logged in Germany by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for disease control. Exactly a week ago, the number of cases stood at 7,709.

Meanwhile, 43 deaths were reported within 24 hours, bringing the total number of deaths in Germany to more than 75,900.

The number of cases per 100,000 residents in seven days was 134.4 on Monday – another increase from the previous day when it was 129.7.

Covid cases are always lower on Mondays due to fewer tests at the weekend.

“We can’t let it go on like this,” Lauterbach told Westdeutscher Rundfunk radio. Otherwise, he said, incidence figures would rise above 200 in the coming weeks.

Among other measures, the SPD politician has called for a temporary night-time curfew.

Movement data from mobile phone companies shows that many people in Germany are still meeting privately in the evening, he said.

READ ALSO: Merkel admits Easter coronavirus shutdown plan her ‘mistake alone’

The health expert slammed the inconsistent approach by Germany’s 16 states, and efforts by some states, including Berlin, to relax rules with more testing.

“The truth is, we first really need to bring control into what is happening,” he said. “We need something to restrain the exponential growth now and that can’t be done with easing.”

“Testing alone will not solve this problem.”

Petition for ‘hard lockdown’

Over the weekend, #harterlockdownJetzt (hard lockdown now) was trending on Twitter in Germany.

A petition was also launched calling on the government to introduce stricter rules as soon as possible. On Monday morning it had attracted 32,849 supporters.

One of the petition organisers, German author and journalist Fridemann Karig said in a tweet: “The lockdown is coming anyway. Every day later prolongs it and costs lives. An earlier lockdown is also a shorter lockdown (and nobody likes lockdowns). That is why @samelou and I have started a petition.”

What are other politicians – and Merkel – saying?

On Saturday Health Minister Jens Spahn said the whole country needed “another ten, 14 days of real shutdown of our contacts and mobility” to bring infections under control.

However, in a TV interview Merkel said that Germany’s 16 states needed to follow the rules already agreed. Merkel has so far not advocated for a nationwide stricter lockdown since the Easter lockdown backtrack.

“We need action in the federal states,” Merkel said in the interview. 

Merkel and regional leaders had previously agreed to stick to shutdown measures including an “emergency brake” to be applied in regions with high incidence rates.

The plans call for measures such as curfews in areas with more than 100 new infections per 100,000 people over seven days. But under Germany’s federal system, each state can ultimately decide its own rules.

READ ALSO: First German state set to end coronavirus shutdown from April 16th

Lower Saxony’s economy minister Bernd Althusmann defended regional relaxations of measures despite rising cases.

“I am afraid we will have to live with a certain level of infection in Germany,” he said, adding that “we must also find ways out of the pandemic. And that way cannot always be lockdown.”

Lower Saxony wants to allow public life to reopen in about 25 large, medium and small municipalities with mass rapid testing. This includes shops, outdoor dining, cultural centres, theatres, opera houses, cinemas and fitness studios.

Can the German government force states to follow agreed upon rules?

At this stage it doesn’t appear that a nationwide lockdown is on the cards.

However, Merkel said during her TV interview that one possibility would be to “tackle the Infection Protection Act again and say very specifically what has to happen in which case” – for example when the 7-day incidence rate climbs above 100.

Merkel said she would not stand by and watch until there were 100,000 new infections a day in Germany.

This could force states to apply the “emergency brake” and tighten restrictions.

According to a report in Spiegel, quoting law experts, a lockdown can be put in place by the federal government within law if the situation calls for it.

Bavarian state premier Markus Söder said he would support the federal government taking tougher action on states.

He said: “I could imagine more federal power via the Infection Protection Act, which also forces the states to follow clear rules. I am very much in favour of this and open,” the CSU leader said to broadcaster ARD.

In this context, Söder also slammed states for not putting in tougher measures when cases rise.

Söder appealed to other federal states to introduce a night-time curfew – especially over the Easter holidays.

This would not be legally enforceable nationwide, Söder said. But, “If the Chancellor would take the initiative, an initiative on a national level, to change the law and make clear guidelines, she would have my support,” he said.

Member comments

  1. If the idiots don’t keep social distance and wear face masks (and stop travelling/moving unnecessary!)?
    Then this is the only option that the rest of us are forced into. Their selfish behaviour is prolonging everything.

  2. Wide-spread availability of vaccines could play a major role in improving Germany’s Covid statistics, and therefore, sooner than later impact the need for ongoing restrictions! Why is Germany’s vaccination campaign so far behind most other countries?

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COVID-19 RULES

Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

Bavaria's state premier Markus Söder (CSU) has announced plans for a "prompt" end to mandatory masks on buses and trains.

Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

If infection levels and hospitalisations remain low, the end of the mask-wearing rule could come as soon as December or January.

“We are convinced that the mask requirement in public transport could also be phased out either in mid-December or early next year, if the numbers remain reasonably stable and there are no new mutations,” Söder explained on Monday, following a meeting with the CSU executive committee. 

A decision on when to end the measure would be made “promptly”, he added.

The CSU politician had said last week that the sinking infection rates meant that compulsory masks were no longer appropriate and that the mandate could be changed to a recommendation. 

No set date for change

The latest version of Bavaria’s Infection Protection Act – which lays out an obligation to wear masks on public transport as one of the few remaining Covid rules – is currently due to expire on December 9th.

State ministers could decide whether to let obligatory masks on buses and trains lapse on this date as early as next week, or they could decide to initially extend the legislation and set an alternative date for ending the rule.

Regardless of their decision, FFP2 masks will continue to be mandatory on long-distance public transport until at least April next year, when the nationwide Infection Protection Act is due to expire.

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

Speaking to Süddeutsche Zeitung on Monday after the meeting of the Council of Ministers, Florian Herrmann (CSU), head of the State Chancellery, confirmed that Covid-19 had been discussed in passing.

However, no decisions or discussions were made on how to proceed after the expiry of the regulation, he said.

According to Herrmann, the fact that Covid was no longer the “dominant topic” in the cabinet under “enormous tension” shows “that we are returning to normality” in a gradual transition from pandemic to endemic. 

As of Wednesday, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 people stood at 108 in Bavaria, down from 111 the previous day. However, experts have cast doubt on how meaningful the incidence is in light of the fact that fewer people are taking tests.

Nevertheless, the 133 hospital beds occupied by Covid patients in the Free State falls well below the 600 threshold for a ‘red alert’. With Omicron causing less severe courses of illness than previous variants, politicians have increasingly focussed on hospitalisation statistics to gauge the severity of the situation.

‘A risk-benefit trade-off’

Bavaria is the second federal state to announce plans to relax its mask-wearing rules in recent weeks.

On November 14th, the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein announced that it would be ending obligatory FFP2 masks on public transport and urged other states to do the same. From January 2023, masks on public transport will only be recommended rather than mandated for passengers on local buses and trains. 

However, the Federal Ministry of Health has urged states not to loosen their rules too quickly.

Given that infection rates are likely to spike again in winter, “there’s no basis for loosening restrictions”, said Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD).

Physicians are also split on whether an end to masks on public transport is appropriate.

READ ALSO: Will Germany get rid of masks on public transport?

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) speaks at the German Hospital Day in Düsseldorf on November 14th. Lauterbach is against the lifting of the mask-wearing rule. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Christoph Spinner, a virologist at the University Hospital in Munich, told Süddeutsche Zeitung he believed it was time to put the decision on mask-wearing back into the hands of individuals.

“Why not? The incidences are low, the danger of Covid-19 has dropped significantly and mortality has also decreased,” he said. 

But the Bavarian General Practitioners’ Association spoke out against the move, arguing that – unlike a trip to a restaurant or cinema – people often have no choice but to travel on public transport.

“If the obligation to wear a mask in public transport is maintained, this will help to protect against a Covid infection on the way to work by bus or train – especially in view of the discontinuation of the obligation to isolate in the event of a Covid infection,” they explained.

Bavaria is one of four states to have recently ended mandatory isolation for people who test positive for Covid. Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein both scrapped their isolation mandate last week, while Hesse removed its obligation on Tuesday. 

READ ALSO: Four German states call for end to mandatory Covid isolation

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