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COVID-19

Germany’s next government struggles as fourth Covid wave hits

A ferocious fourth wave of coronavirus presents the first major test for Germany's coalition-in-waiting, caught off guard and scrambling to agree on a response before it even takes office.

Visitors at the Osnabrück Christmas market have to prove they are vaccinated or have recovered from Covid under 2G rules.
Visitors at the Osnabrück Christmas market have to prove they are vaccinated or have recovered from Covid under 2G rules. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Friso Gentsch

On Tuesday, the weekly incidence rate of the virus hit another high one day after surpassing 300 out of every 100,000 people, the first time it had crossed the threshold, fuelled in part by sluggish vaccination rates.

In Bavaria, and the east German states of Thuringia and Saxony, the situation is reaching a critical point amid warnings that hospitals across the
country will hit capacity in the first two weeks of December.

The incoming government is recommending that people need to be vaccinated or prove a negative Covid test to use public transport and wants to re-impose working from home rules where there is no “compelling business reason”.

The prospective coalition partners will formally present their coronavirus proposals to the lower house of German parliament for approval on Thursday.

A crisis meeting between the government and the heads of Germany’s 16 regional states is also scheduled for Thursday, with the aim of better coordinating the country’s coronavirus response.

But the vacuum created by a government in transition has sown confusion. On Monday, a leading Green parliamentarian announced a vaccination requirement for health professionals, before being forced to row back.

The suggestion is still on the drawing board between her party, the Social Democrats and the liberal Free Democrats, who said Tuesday they plan to lay out a draft coalition contract next week.

READ ALSO: 2G rules – How Bavaria is tightening restrictions on the unvaccinated

Merkel concerned

Would-be chancellor Olaf Scholz from the centre-left Social Democrats, who has been accused of staying in the background as the Covid crisis rages, said it was “right to start a debate” about vaccine mandates for certain professions.

His vagueness drew immediate criticism from Der Spiegel weekly, which accused him of copying Merkel in staying on the fence until the last minute.

“Merkel herself couldn’t have said it better, or less precise,” it wrote.

The growing wave in a country which has recorded over five million infections during the pandemic is the first test for the incoming coalition before it has even put pen to paper on a deal.

“We have difficult weeks ahead of us,” outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Saturday.

“With the number of cases we have at the moment, hospitals across the country will reach capacity in the first two weeks of December,” Social Democrat health expert Karl Lauterbach said.

As such, access to public transport including “to school and taxis” will be limited to people who have been vaccinated, recovered or tested negative, according to a draft text seen by AFP.

READ ALSO: Germany’s planned Covid restrictions to fight fourth wave

Vaccine scepticism

States will also be able to introduce new restrictions in public and private places, potentially including Germany’s cherished Christmas markets.

The extra measures have been welcomed by Bavarian premier Markus Söder, who said they went in the “right direction”.

The incoming coalition parties have, however, ruled out a return to lockdown, deciding not to extend Germany’s official health emergency beyond
November 25th.

The decision has been criticised by conservatives, who are soon to find themselves in opposition for the first time in 16 years, and are already formulating attack-lines against the new coalition.

The reasons for the rapid deterioration in the situation are manifold, but they include a sluggish vaccination rate of 67.5 percent – significantly below the three-quarters mark targeted by Merkel’s government.

Around 14 million Germans eligible to be vaccinated have not taken up the offer. In Saxony, where the wave has so far been highest, only 59.6 percent of the population has received the jab.

Border regions like Bavaria and Saxony have suffered from growing case loads in the neighbouring Czech Republic and Austria, where Vienna this week put the unvaccinated under lockdown.

Germany’s former Communist east is also a bastion of support for the far-right AfD, vaccination sceptics. Half of all unvaccinated people voted for the party in the September general election, according to a poll by Forsa.

READ ALSO: Why are so many Germans reluctant to get vaccinated?

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COVID-19 RULES

Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

German health ministers say that tougher Covid restrictions should come back into force if a serious wave emerges in autumn.

Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

Following a video meeting on Monday, the health ministers of Germany’s 16 states said tougher restrictions should be imposed again if they are needed. 

“The corona pandemic is not over yet – we must not be deceived by the current declining incidences,” said Saxony-Anhalt’s health minister Petra Grimm-Benne, of the Social Democrats, who currently chairs the Conference of Health Ministers (GMK).

According to the GMK, new virus variants are expected to appear in autumn and winter. Over the weekend, federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) also warned that the more dangerous Delta variant could return to Germany. “That is why the federal Ministry of Health should draw up a master plan to combat the corona pandemic as soon as possible and coordinate it with the states,” Grimm-Benne said.

Preparations should also include an amendment of the Infection Protection Act, ministers urged. They want to see the states given powers to react to the infection situation in autumn and winter. They called on the government to initiate the legislative process in a timely manner, and get the states actively involved.

The current Infection Protection Act expires on September 23rd this year. Germany has loosened much of its Covid restrictions in the last months, however, face masks are still compulsory on public transport as well as on planes. 

READ ALSO: Do people in Germany still have to wear Covid masks on planes?

The health ministers said that from autumn onwards, it should be possible for states to make masks compulsory indoors if the regional infection situation calls for it. Previously, wearing a Covid mask was obligatory in Germany when shopping and in restaurants and bars when not sitting at a table. 

Furthermore, the so-called 3G rule for accessing some venues and facilities – where people have to present proof of vaccination, recovery, or a negative test – should be implemented again if needed, as well as other infection protection rules, the ministers said. 

Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek, of the CSU, welcomed the ministers’ unanimous call for a revision of the Infection Protection Act. “The states must be able to take all necessary infection protection measures quickly, effectively, and with legal certainty,” he said.

North Rhine-Westphalia’s health minister Karl-Josef Laumann (CDU) warned that no one should “lull themselves into a false sense of security”.

“We must now prepare for the colder season and use the time to be able to answer important questions about the immunity of the population or the mechanisms of infection chains,” he said.

On Tuesday, Germany reported 86,253 Covid infections within the latest 24 hour period, as well as 215 Covid-related deaths. The 7-day incidence stood at 437.6 infections per 100,000 people. However, experts believe there could be twice as many infections because lots of cases go unreported. 

READ ALSO: Five things to know about the Covid pandemic in Germany right now

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