German health experts call for strict lockdown to quell rising Covid cases

High-profile virologist Christian Drosten and other medical experts are calling for tougher coronavirus measures to control the third pandemic wave.

German health experts call for strict lockdown to quell rising Covid cases
People enjoying the weather in Hamburg on March 30th. Photo: DPA

Drosten, the chief virologist at Berlin’s Charité hospital and advisor to the government, said tougher measures were needed in Germany because of the increase in cases.

“I don’t think it will work without a new lockdown to once again delay this momentum that has now set in without any doubt,” Drosten said on his Coronavirus Update podcast on Tuesday.

The situation is unfortunately “very serious and very complicated”, he added, saying that Germany has missed a lot of opportunities to “optimise the tools” it has.

“I have the feeling that we actually still have to use the same tools right now, that we used in the first wave,” he said. The only thing left is the ‘sledgehammer’: a tough lockdown.

“It’s clear, contacts have to be reduced,” Drosten said, adding that this included the private sphere, education and workplaces. It is wrong, he said, to say that we don’t know where the virus is being transmitted.

READ ALSO: Is Germany heading for a tougher lockdown?

Drosten said the virus surge has started earlier than models predicted.

This week, he said, the more contagious variant B.1.1.7, which originated in the UK, will cover more than 90 percent of cases in Germany.

“That is of course anything but reassuring,” he said.

Danger of pandemic getting ‘completely out of control’

Doctors have also urged the government to take action.

“We are in the middle of the third wave. Vaccinations will not yet be able to break it in the coming weeks,” Ute Teichert, chairwoman of the Federal Association of German Medical Officers, told the Rheinische Post.

It is therefore “crucial” to reduce the number of infections, she said. However, this is only possible with a “consistent lockdown”.

Teichert warned against opening steps, which some states or cities in Germany are taking.

READ ALSO: How the German city of Tübingen is betting on Covid tests to reopen public life

“Relaxations lead to people having a lot of contacts,” she said. Combined with the high infection figures, it would then become “difficult to impossible” to track contacts, and the danger of the pandemic getting “completely out of control” increases.

In parallel to the lockdown, “concrete concepts” must be developed “on how a reasonable testing and vaccination strategy and apps for digital contact tracing, such as the Luca app, can be used to ease the situation – but only when the number of cases is down”, said Teichert.

This strategy also includes explaining exactly how people and institutions should proceed if a rapid test indicates an infection.

On Wednesday, Germany registered 17,051 coronavirus cases within 24 hours and 249 deaths, according to the Robert Koch Institute.

The number of cases per 100,000 people within a seven-day period stood at 132.3.

READ ALSO: Germany’s coronavirus incidence rate more than doubles in four weeks

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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