German state plans Christmas ‘partial lockdown’ to fight Covid

Lower Saxony's state leader has announced a "Weihnachtsruhe" - or Christmas quiet period - with some closures and a ban on large New Year's Eve parties to try and slow down the spread of Covid-19.

A Christmas market in Braunschweig.
A Christmas market in Braunschweig. Christmas markets will have to close in Lower Saxony during the period between Christmas and New Year. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Swen Pförtner

From December 24th until January 2nd, the entire western state of Lower Saxony will move to ‘warning level 3’ which is usually only for Covid hotspots.

On Friday, December 10th, state premier Stephan Weil announced a number of special regulations. They include a ban on large New Year’s Eve parties, while clubs and discos will have to close – but restaurants and hotels will stay open. 

The aim is to try and combat Germany’s fierce fourth Covid wave and slow the spread of the more transmissible Omicron variant. 

Other states may choose to follow Weil’s lead. With a 7-day incidence of 163.4 infections per 100,000 people, Lower Saxony is one of the least Covid-affected German states currently, along with Schleswig-Holstein.

The eastern states of Thuringia (7-day incidence of 1032.7) and Saxony (1024.5) are the worst affected. Saxony currently has a lockdown in place, with bars and many cultural facilities closed. Restaurants also have to shut in the worst-affected areas. The lockdown (or Wellenbrecher) was recently extended until January 9th. 

Why is Lower Saxony implementing a partial shutdown?

State premier Weil, who belongs to the Social Democrats, said he wanted to prepare for the Omicron wave. 

“I am extremely concerned about what may come our way at the beginning of the year,” he said when announcing the plans.

“The period between Christmas and New Year is one of intense social contact. We must not come out of this period with an even bigger problem than we went in with.

He said the “Christmas quiet period” is part of the new state ‘Corona Ordinance’, which has been in force since Sunday. At the end of last week, the federal government changed infection protection laws in order to give states more powers to fight the pandemic. 

READ MORE: Key points – How Germany is tightening Covid laws to allow more restrictions 

Here’s a look at the rules between December 24th and January 2nd:

  • Private meetings/New Year’s Eve parties: vaccinated and recovered people will be allowed to meet indoors with a maximum of 25 people, and outside with a maximum of 50 people. Unvaccinated people can meet a maximum of two people from another household. Children under 14 years of age do not count
  • Christmas services are to be allowed, but Christmas markets will be banned during this time
  • 2G rules (entry only for the vaccinated and recovered) continue to apply in non-essential shops
  • 2G-plus (vaccinated and recovered will have to show a test) will apply in many other areas
  • Events with more than 10 people are to be possible with 2G-plus rule or clear capacity limitation
  • Events with more than 500 people and fairs are to be banned
  • Dance events are to be banned, discos and clubs have to close
  • Catering establishments (like restaurants and cafes) and fitness studios to remain open
  • Accommodation (like hotels) are to remain open with the 2G-plus rule.

The opposition in Lower Saxony’s state government were sceptical about the plans.

Green Party leader Julia Willie Hamburg called for speedier vaccinations and better Covid testing infrastructure. 

Meanwhile, the business friendly Free Democrats (FDP) called the changes to regulations a “communication disaster” and questioned if the rules would hold up in court. 


What’s happening at schools?

There has been talk among German states of moving school Christmas holidays forward.

In Lower Saxony, the education minister Grant Hendrik Tonne (SPD) said this wouldn’t happen but that compulsory attendance at schools will be lifted before Christmas.

As of December 20th – three days before the start of the holidays – pupils do not have to attend school if their parents do not want them too. However, they will not receive distance learning on these three days. 

The holidays are to begin as planned in Lower Saxony on December 23rd and last until January 7th.

Member comments

  1. Lower Saxony being one of the lowest infection rates at “163.4 infections per 100,000 people”
    Recent modification to the Law, one might wonder if State Premier Weil is flexing his powers.

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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