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OPINION: Germany has never had a real Covid lockdown

Germany is in the grip of a third Covid wave, with intensive care beds filling up. As politicians and medical experts talk of a “lockdown”, many people are confused. Aren’t we already in a lockdown? No, and this is part of the confusion, writes Rachel Loxton.

OPINION: Germany has never had a real Covid lockdown
People walking in central Frankfurt am Main on March 27th. Photo: DPA

Living in Berlin throughout the pandemic has had its ups and downs. Like in most places there have been strict measures aimed at slowing down the spread of Covid. 

For nearly six months now (!) restaurants, cafes and bars have been shut (except for takeaway) in Germany. Things like gyms, cinemas and museums have also mostly been shut. And clubs have been closed for over a year. 

All this is absolutely rubbish, and it has been difficult for everyone. 

But I would argue that we haven’t really had a proper lockdown in Germany. Although there are contact restrictions, we have still been able to meet people, and we haven’t been forced to stay indoors. 

We’ve been encouraged to cut down on social contact and form a “social bubble” but not ordered to.

The closest we’ve come to a national lockdown in Germany is during the first wave last spring when people were not allowed to meet with others indoors. 

At its most strict, we were allowed to meet with one other person outside, and told to only leave our homes for essential reasons. But this included unlimited exercise time and we didn’t need a form to go outside as was the case in some other European countries. 

Travel was also banned in March 2020 for a period of time, but this has never been the case during the second and current third wave. At the moment travel is discouraged, but this didn’t stop tens of thousands of German tourists flying to Mallorca during the Easter holidays.

READ ALSO: ‘I really needed a break’: Pandemic-weary Germans find ‘freedom’ on Mallorca

People sitting on a bench in a Berlin park on April 4th 2020. Photo: DPA

Of course last spring everyone was shocked by the extreme measures and simply getting to grips with the concept of the “coronavirus lockdown” which we’d never had to think about before. 

Since the first wave and throughout the pandemic there have been localised outbreaks that have seen small-scale lockdowns in Germany with people forced to quarantine, such as after outbreaks at meat plants or in housing complexes.

What’s in a name?

I think it’s important to consider the way we use the term “lockdown” as politicians and medical experts are talking at the moment about bringing in a new lockdown to control the rising number of Covid infections. 

READ ALSO: Could a ‘bridge lockdown’ be the answer to Germany’s spiralling Covid cases?

“Aren’t we already in a lockdown?” I’ve heard people ask. 

The Cambridge dictionary defines a lockdown as “a period of time in which people are not allowed to leave their homes or travel freely because of a dangerous disease”.

By branding all tough coronavirus measures as a lockdown, we’ve risked taking away the seriousness of what it actually is and means to be essentially banned from socialising, moving around and therefore stuck inside most of the time. 

I’ve been guilty of it myself – often talking about “Germany’s lockdown” with friends and family. At times I may have even called it a lockdown in stories for The Local although we have tried to make a big effort to call it a shutdown, lockdown measures or a partial lockdown. 

From ‘lockdown light’ to ‘hard lockdown’

Although the first action taken in November was widely called a “partial lockdown” or a “lockdown light” by German media and politicians (although not in official government documents as far I’m aware), come December when schools and hairdressers were closed, it was suddenly branded a “hard lockdown”. 

Yes, there were stronger restrictions, but this was no hard lockdown. 

The way we talk about the rules leads to people both inside and outside Germany thinking the country is in a different position than the reality. 

People in Germany have had a lot more freedom than other countries.

In France there was a full national lockdown last spring and people needed a form every time they left the house. Spain and Italy also had very strict lockdowns in the first wave, with more regional tough restrictions in the second wave.

I regularly give the word on the ground from Germany for BBC Radio in my home country of Scotland. During these reports I’ve had to emphasise that Germany’s “lockdown” is a partial lockdown, and not the same as Scotland’s. 

In Scotland, among other measures, people are still not allowed to visit anyone else indoors and there was until very recently a legal requirement to stay at home for all but essential purposes, which had been in force since January 5th.

A tweet by German political scientist Marcel Dirsus that gathered more than 11,000 likes sums it up.

“I wish Germans had never started using the word lockdown,” he said. “It made them overestimate the severity of pandemic restrictions and now it’s tougher to sell an actual lockdown to people because they think they’ve had it all along.

In the tweet thread he pointed out that people in Germany have “kept working at the office. They could always go see a friend at their house if they wanted to. They never needed to fill in a form to go jogging. Germany never had a hotel quarantine for international arrivals.”

“If you want to let people hang out with friends or work at the office even though they clearly aren’t essential personnel, so be it. It’s a legitimate position I happen to disagree with. But do everyone a favour and stop calling it lockdown.”

When I contacted Dirsus he added: “Germany never had a lockdown… But because journalists and politicians kept referring to existing contact restrictions as lockdowns, it’s now more difficult to impose one because Germans think they’ve had it all along.”

Tobias Kurth, professor of public health and epidemiology at the Charité in Berlin, said using the term lockdown for any rules “absolutely was and is damaging”.

“In the end, Germany never had a real lockdown and the consequences we all feel now,” he said. “Likely, as we have used the word lockdown in variations since November, now people may think, ‘Well but we are already in a lockdown so what is new and why do I need to change?'”

My colleague Rachel Stern, editor of The Local Germany, said the flaky way that restrictions are put in place and then taken away adds to the confusion.

She said: “As time goes on, the term ‘lockdown’ seems to be losing its seriousness for Germans.

“Measures are put in place, only to be quickly repealed following criticism, or in some case lawsuits. In many states, night-time curfews were quickly overturned, and the ’15 kilometre rule’ – which was about how far Germans living in coronavirus hotspots could travel – barely lasted a couple of weeks.”

A half-arsed lockdown

So if we haven’t had a proper lockdown what have we had for the last six months? In my opinion, it’s been a long-drawn out, half-arsed (as we’d say in Scotland) kind-of-lockdown. 

And it’s been excruciating, for every single person I’ve spoken to. We may be able to go outside often and meet up with a small number of people, but these restrictions have been a nightmare. Life is far from normal.

Yet I am very thankful for the little freedoms we have when I think of some other places.

I do wonder, though, what difference it would have made for Germany to have brought in a real, tough lockdown way back at the beginning of the second wave or at least in December during the peak.

Instead there’s been back-and-forth on various rules, talks of an Easter lockdown before a U-turn, mixed messages and people travelling. Meanwhile, the B.1.1.7 Covid variant has wreaked havoc.

On Friday German Health Minister Jens Spahn and medical experts pleaded for a lockdown, saying the health system is is on the brink of becoming overwhelmed.

But if an actual lockdown is proposed – or at least much stronger measures – will people in Germany be on board with it?

Member comments

  1. A very good Article, & spot-on. You can’t “advise” people to not do certain things, because people will always find an excuse to ignore the advice as they see fit.

  2. Yep, what would have fixed the problem would be needing a piece of paper filled out to leave the house like a prep school juvenile….Talk about Big State overreach. It hasn´t worked any better in France doing just that.
    Lock down is a prison term. It means that all cells will be locked down and no exercise yard privileges will be given while the authorities search the cells. No wonder, it was a stupid term to use in the first place. The problem here is that the authorities here don´t seem to know what to do. Just pronounce and fudge the policy while blaming beach/park go-ers and vaccine manufacturers wherever possible.

  3. “All this is absolutely rubbish, and it has been difficult for everyone.”

    A so-called lockdown is not – and never been! – a bad idea…

    However, we all know people who have flouted the social distancing and mask wearing rules.
    (Anyone with common sense must appreciate that following these simple guidelines protects us?)

    It is still confusing for many of us that some parts of society are forced to stop their business/work, but so many selfish individuals – with a secure monthly salary! – are continuing life (partying, catching up with numerous friends/family, not social distancing etc.).

    The government is to blame for the slow vaccine rollout. But the the disgusting attitude of the majority are prolonging this misery through their selfish behaviour.

  4. It seems as if the production of vaccines is so lackluster and not taken seriously. Get people vaccinated and make it a national priority.

  5. This piece would be a lot more helpful if it differentiated between measures that limit indoor activities (which actually drive infections); and those that limit outdoor activities (which don’t). The fact that you have people gathering indoors while police prevent outdoor meetups is Kafkaesque, and journalists should do their part in exposing this absurdity.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Germany has failed to do its energy ‘homework’ – and faces years of catching up

Germany's energy crisis is the result of decades of failing to take action - and now residents face tough times. Brian Melican looks at what went wrong and asks why Germany isn't doing more to become energy independent given the scale of the problem.

OPINION: Germany has failed to do its energy 'homework' - and faces years of catching up

One of the most common figures of speech in German political debate is “doing one’s homework”. “Da hat die Politik mal wieder ihre Hausaufgaben nicht gemacht!” – “Once again, the politicians haven’t done their homework!” – is the usual refrain when something has gone quite predictably awry. Part and parcel of day-to-day politics in Germany, into other cultural spheres, this accusation is considered insufferably patronising. During the Euro crisis of 2012, for instance, the Greeks grew tired of being told, like petulant teenagers, to “go away and do (their) homework”. So it’s hard to begrudge them their audible Schadenfreude now that the self-styled schoolmaster has been caught with a briefcase full of unmarked essays.

While the details of the current energy crisis into which Germany has manoeuvred itself are technically complex – turbines and export permits; prolonging the service life of nuclear reactors or even recommissioning them; adjusting the amount of gas-generated electricity in the grid to varying degrees between north and south – the overall picture is so simple that every schoolchild can understand it: we have been putting off our homework for too long. 

READ ALSO: Energy crisis to labour shortage: Five challenges facing Germany right now

Years of inaction 

The assignment was set long ago. Back in the late 1990s, climate change first hit the political agenda and the Kyoto Protocol bound signatories to reduce greenhouse emissions. What’s more, Germany, as a country with few natural resources but a large industrial economy, has long been dependent on in importing astronomical amounts of oil and gas from foreign regimes – an approach whose weaknesses started to become apparent in the Oil Crises of the 1970s. As such, the task was clear – to radically reduce our dependency on fossil fuels – and the student understood the learning objectives: contribute to saving the planet and gain a degree of strategic freedom.

We got off to a good start in 1998 by, for the first time ever, electing the Greens, who promptly proclaimed the Energiewende (green energy transition) and set about creating Europe’s leading solar and wind power industry. Unfortunately, however, the Chancellor they were under was SPD-man Gerhard “Greenhouse gasses? Russian gas!” Schröder and, in the background, industrials were assured that they wouldn’t have to take all the ecological stuff too seriously. 

Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin

Gerhard Schröder hugs Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Moscow in 2018. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/TASS | Alexei Druzhinin

Then, in 2005 we elected Chancellor Merkel – and re-elected her three times on a more or less explicit platform of Keeping Everything The Way It Is. This could only be achieved by continuing to import fossil fuels – an ever increasing proportion of which came, in spite of the many clear and pressing dangers, from Russia – and shrinking our renewables sector so that money could still be lavished on tax breaks for motorists and nobody’s view would be spoiled by wind farms.

Now, the due date for our homework has come around and we have a serious crisis. Things, for the first time ever, can no longer be Kept The Way They Are: public buildings are no longer being heated/cooled, swimming pools are being shut, and monuments are not being lit; those of us on gas heating (i.e. the majority of households in Germany) will soon be paying anything from double to quadruple our current bills.

READ ALSO: Reader question – Should I modernise my heating system in Germany?

Everywhere we look, there are shortages: not enough gas means, in anti-wind-power southern Germany, not enough electricity too. Yet sales figures from DIY chain stores show skyrocketing sales of electric heaters; shutting public buildings reduces consumption there, but increases it in people’s homes… Like a schoolboy on Sunday evening counting and re-counting the hours, whichever way we divide our time, there’s not enough of it.

Gas heaters on display in Hornbach Baumarkt in Fröttmaning.

Electric heaters are among the many heating devices lining store shelves right now, like these on display in a Hornbach Baumarkt in Fröttmaning Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Felix Hörhager

What’s astonishing, by the way, is not actually how bad things have got – and how bad they’re looking this autumn and winter – but rather that they aren’t already far worse. This is primarily due to Economics Minister Robert Habeck’s decisive early action and brutally honest communication: as a result, we have been unexpectedly successful in reducing dependency on Russian gas from 55 percent to 35 percent within four months and have, due to various comparatively painless efficiency savings, managed to cut our gas consumption by 14 percent compared to last summer. As such, the Federal Network Agency is now cautiously optimistic that, if this winter is not a particularly cold one, we may just about make it through without having to shut off the gas supply to swathes of our industry or whole cities.

This may sound like a national success story – and if we are indeed successful in maintaining this thin, increasingly wobbly veneer of normality into 2023, there will be a strong temptation to sell it as such, patting ourselves on the back for having been far-sighted enough to switch off the hot water in town halls across the country before it was too late and then allowing ourselves to get distracted. Yet depriving civil servants of warm water to wash their hands during some of the hottest months on record while half of them are on holiday anyway (Why wasn’t this already standard practice?!) does not a green energy transition make. It is the equivalent of writing the last line on that essay just as the bus pulls into the stop opposite the school.

READ ALSO: Cold showers to turning off lights: How German cities are saving energy ahead of winter

Winter is first obstacle of many

Any short-term successes must be put in the context of a mountain of uncompleted tasks in the medium term. Firstly, getting through this winter by the skin of our teeth will mean that gas stocks are even lower next April than they were this year. So we’d better hope that those liquefied natural gas terminals being rush-built on the coast are operational by then, and that Qatar – that oh-so reliable regime thousands of miles away on the Persian Gulf that totally shares all of our values – honours the contracts Robert Habeck managed to grovel us into earlier this year.

Robert Habeck, Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection, takes part in a boat tour for liquefied natural gas imports to Germany on Wednesday in Wilhelmshaven.

Robert Habeck, Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection, takes part in a boat tour for liquefied natural gas imports to Germany earlier in 2022 in Wilhelmshaven. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

We’d also better hope that the Suez Canal, through which tankers filled with the much-needed LNG will need to pass, remains open the whole time and that Russian submarines sneaking their way through the Bosphorus don’t generate “incidents at sea”; then there’s Putin’s air units stationed in Syria… After that, in 2024, we’ll also need to keep a close eye on the US elections: another chunk of the LNG planned to replace Russian gas is from across the Atlantic, and a second Trump Administration would probably be only marginally more reliable a supplier than Putin’s regime.

So despite the flurry of activity this summer and the understandable angst ahead of autumn, it’s not really this winter that we should be worried about. There is, quite simply, a massive disconnect between the monumental scale of action which would be required to make Germany truly energy independent and the diminutive dimensions of what is currently happening.

Right now, we should be making it a legal requirement for landlords to switch heating systems from gas and legislating for state-funded factories to meet the demand this would generate; we should be immediately reactivating some of the thousands of kilometres of freight tracks Deutsche Bahn has dismantled in recent years – and drafting laws to make hauliers use these rail connections. Instead, we are jerry-rigging up LNG terminals and mucking about with flash-in-the-pan €9 tickets while we continue subsidising car-drivers enormous sums to burn petrol. 

Oh, and given that – who could have guessed? – Russia is barely respecting its supply commitments anyway, we should finally do the decent thing and stop importing Russian gas now. Would that add to our dire predicament? Yes. But perhaps, in order for us to start taking our homework seriously, we need to learn a few lessons first.

READ ALSO: OPINION: How many massacres will it take for Germany to turn off Russian gas?

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