Covid measures have come ‘too late’, warns German Health Minister

At his final press conference as German Health Minister, Jens Spahn (CDU) issued a grim warning that the number of Covid patients on intensive care wards was on track to rise to 'well over 5,000' in the coming weeks in spite of new measures.

Acting Health Minister Jens Spahn
Acting Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) speaks at a press conference on Friday, December 3rd. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

“More than one percent of the German population is acutely infected, the military is transferring patients between hospitals, key operations are being postponed, and the ICUs (intensive care units) continue to fill up,” he told reporters gathered at the Friday press conference.

He said he welcomed the new anti-Covid measures that had been decided on by the federal and state governments on Thursday afternoon.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid rules to fight fourth wave

“But it has come too late – for some too late,” he said. 

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) estimates that there are around 926,000 active Covid cases in Germany at the moment – representing more than one percent of the population – but have warned that the real figure could be much higher.

Due to the proportion of positive PCR tests coming back from the labs, “we’re assuming this is underestimated by a factor of two or three,” said RKI president Lothar Wieler. 

That means that up to 2.8 million people, or around three percent of the population, could currently be suffering from a Covid infection – either with or without symptoms. 

With the situation on intensive care wards getting worse by the day, the pandemic situation isn’t only affecting those with Covid, but also people with chronic conditions like cancer that require a complex and timely series of treatments, Wieler said.

At present, five percent fewer tumour operations are taking place – affecting the chances of survival for cancer patients. 

Wieler said the situation could be made worse by the presence of the new Omicron variant, which may be more transmissible and break through vaccine protection more easily – although research into it is still ongoing. 

“We have no time to lose, not a single day,” he added. 

‘Far too high’

Dampening hopes that the fourth wave could be breaking in light of stagnating incidences, Wieler warned that the number of infections was “still far too high”. 

“It’s far too soon to talk of a trend reversal and avoid stricter measures – quite the opposite,” he said. Pointing to the regions with more than 1,000 new weekly infections per 100,000 people, he argued that health officials were simply no longer able to keep track of all the infections, leading to an artificial dip in case numbers.

“In some states we may be seeing the early effects of new Covid measures, in others the capacity has been exhausted,” Wieler said.

Lothar Wieler
President of the Robert Koch Insitute, Lother Wieler, issues a stark warning at a press conference with Health Minister Jens Spahn. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka

On Thursday, incoming Chancellor Olaf Scholz, acting Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of the 16 states met to decide on a suite of new measures to battle the fourth wave, including barring the unvaccinated from non-essential shops and other areas of public life and allowing regional lockdowns when case numbers were high. 

But Spahn said it could take a few weeks for the measures to dampen the rate of infections, meaning hospitals are likely to come under further pressure and reach a “devasting peak” around Christmas. 

“Even when the decisions taken have the full desired effect, a proportion of the infected will end up in the ICUs next week or the week after,” he said. “Germany will see considerably more than 5,000 patients in the ICU – even with the measures” 

He urged people: “Take the situation seriously, reduce contact as much as possible, help us to avoid further sorrow. Those affected and those who look after them will thank you for it.” 

‘Pandemic of the unvaccinated’

Health experts have criticised the fact that many of the measures decided on by the state and federal leaders are targeted solely at the unvaccinated.

The government has agreed to introduce tough contact restrictions for the unvaccinated and a system known as ‘2G’, where only recovered and vaccinated people can enter shops, restaurants and cultural venues, nationwide. 

But experts claim the vaccinated are also strong drivers of the pandemic. 

Defending the measures, Spahn said the focus on people who hadn’t been jabbed was justifiable.

“It’s right to say that it’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” he told reporters. “The vaccinated can be infected and drive infections – but it’s true, and it remains true, that the incidence of the unvaccinated is much higher among all age groups than the vaccinated.”

Jens Spahn
Jens Spahn defends the focus on the unvaccinated at a press conference on Friday, December 3rd. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

READ ALSO: German health experts fear new Covid measures won’t break fourth wave

The vaccination campaign has been picking up pace in Germany over the past few weeks, with almost a million jabs being issued per day on Wednesday and Thursday.

“In a short time, we’ve managed to bring the vaccination campaign back to life,” Spahn said. 

However, the vast majority of these jabs are booster jabs given out to people who were already vaccinated – meaning that the proportion of the population who haven’t had a single jab has remained relatively stable. 

“If you choose not to get vaccinated, you don’t just harm yourself, you harm everyone else as well,” he said. “The last few weeks have shown this painfully.”

Germany’s new government, which will take over on December 8th, is hoping to roll out 30 million first, second and booster jabs by Christmas.

Spahn said there would be more than enough vaccine to meet this target in the following days and weeks. Ten million doses had already been put into arms, 10 million more doses had been delivered and 10 million more would come in December, he said. 

“When we use all of these doses, we’ll be giving ourselves the best possible Christmas present,” he added.

Member comments

  1. Sounds like Germany should be asking why they don’t have any of the anti-viral pills that were approved in Britain this week and which reduce hospitalisation and deaths by 80% , vaccinated or not. If the pandemic continues , it will be a pandemic of the incompetent rather than the unvaccinated.

  2. I read earlier that German Hospitals were taking patients from Bulgaria. I thought I heard that hospitals were near full capacity in Germany.

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Germany’s weekly Covid infection rate rises above 500

Germany recorded a weekly Covid incidence of more than 500 per 100,000 people on Monday as health experts warn that the fifth wave of the pandemic has only just begun.

Bar in Berlin's Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district, which has the highest incidence in the country.
People sit outside bars in the Berlin district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, where incidences are currently the highest in the country. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

On Monday, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 people stood at 528, up from 515 the day before and 376 a week ago. 

Infections have been rising rapidly as the highly transmissible Omicron variant tightens its hold in Germany. Monday marked the fourth day in a row in which the country posted record incidences.

Since the first incidence of the variant was discovered in the country around seven weeks ago, Omicron has swiftly taken over as the dominant variant in Germany.

It currently accounts for around 73 percent of Covid infections and is expected to almost entirely replace the Delta variant this week. 

Though Omicron generally causes a less severe illness than Delta, experts are concerned that deaths and hospitalisations could remain high due to the unprecedented number of cases Germany could see.

Unlike Delta, Omicron has a large number of mutations that allow it to evade previously built up immunity through vaccinations and illness. 

The World Health Organisation has warned that half of all Europeans could be infected with the virus by spring. 

“After the temporary decline in case numbers, severe disease courses and deaths towards the end of 2021 in the fourth wave, the fifth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has begun in Germany with the dominant circulation of the omicron variant,” the Robert Koch Institute wrote in its weekly report on Thursday.  

Since the first Omicron case was discovered in Germany, there have been 191,422 suspected or proven cases of the variant.

As Welt data journalist Olaf Gersemann pointed out in Twitter, the number of Omicron cases has increased sixfold within a fortnight. 

Increase in hospitalisations

Before this weekend, Germany had hit its previous peak of infections back in November, when the country posted a 7-day incidence of 485 per 100,000 people at during the peak of the fourth wave.

Since then, Covid measures such contact restrictions and blanket 2G (entry only for the vaccinated and recovered) or 2G-plus (vaccinated or recovered with a negative test) have been relatively effective at turning the tide. 


For the past few weeks however, infections have been on the up once again as the Omicron fifth wave begins.

The incidence of hospitalisations in the country appears to also be on the rise again after a few weeks of decline. On Friday, the 7-day incidence of hospitalisations stood at 3.24 per 100,000 people, up from 3.13 the day before.

Over the weekend, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach warned that Omicron could place additional pressure on the general hospital wards as fewer people end up in intensive care. 

“Depending on how things develop, we may face shortages not only in the intensive care units, but also in the normal wards. There is a threat of entire departments being closed,” he said.

“Rapid spread of the virus would mean hundreds of thousands will become seriously ill and we will have to mourn many thousands of deaths again.” 

Karl Lauterbach

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) speaks at a weekly press conference on Friday, January 14th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Northern states post record incidences

Since the start of the Omicron wave, northern Germany has been disproportionately affected by the virus.

As of Monday, the city-state of Bremen had the highest incidence in the country, with 1389 new cases per 100,000 people recorded in a week.

This was followed by Berlin, which currently has a 7-day incidence of 948, and Hamburg, which recorded a 7-day incidence of 806. The district with the highest incidence in Berlin Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, which posted a weekly incidence of 1597 on Monday. 

In contrast to the fourth wave, the lowest Covid incidences were recorded in the eastern states of Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt and Saxony. 

On Monday, Thuringia had a weekly incidence of 198 per 100,000 people, while Saxony’s incidence was 249 and Saxony-Anhalt’s was 280.

Somewhat inexplicably, the incidence has been declining in Thuringia in recent weeks, though there is speculation that this could be to do with the fact that Omicron has not yet spread in the state.

Nine of the sixteen German states have incidences of more than 500 per 100,000 people.