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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Why Germany can’t break out of its Covid rules rut

Despite other countries getting rid of Covid regulations like mandatory masks on public transport, Germany remains devoted - while also allowing events without masks. Columnist Brian Melican asks why the country can't move on from inconsistent rules.

People board a train in Berlin in May 2022. People in Germany are still required to wear a medical face mask on public transport and on planes.
People board a train in Berlin in May 2022. People in Germany are still required to wear a medical face mask on public transport and on planes. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Monika Skolimowska

If you’ve always dreamt of being able to travel in time, there’s now a surprisingly easy way to do it: just take the ICE from Brussels to Cologne. When you get on at Midi station, things are just like they were in Germany in July 2019: friendly guards greet passengers at the doors and, soon after departure, someone from the BordBistro comes through to first class with a tray of coffee; the weather is fine, the train is punctual, and everyone is beaming ear to ear. You can see they are, of course, because they’re not wearing masks.

Then, in one of the tunnels between Liège and Aachen, we speed into July 2022 Germany: “Meine Damen und Herren…” The jarring announcement tells passengers in four languages – and in no uncertain terms – that they have to wear a medical face-mask on public transport in Germany; they may remove it to eat and drink, but must not overextend the break, and must make sure that it always covers both their mouth and their nose; any deviation from this rule will result in them being removed from the train. Suddenly, the guards and waiters re-appear – and this time, they’re not smiling…

Okay, so this may not be genuine time travel, but it’s certainly a good piece of absurdist theatre and, what is more, a graphic example of just how dysfunctional the German approach to dealing with Covid has become. It’s not that Germany is the only country with an irrational fear of people catching corona on trains and buses (but not, say, in pubs, gyms, or shops): in the UK, France, and Belgium, public transport was one of the last non-clinical settings in which masks were still required; in Sweden, trains were the only one in which they were officially recommended. Yet, everywhere else, common sense eventually prevailed.

In Germany, meanwhile, the world’s largest beer festival and proverbial germ-den, the Oktoberfest, will be returning on 17th September, from when each of the 16 largest tents will be welcoming up to 10,000 guests belting out Schlager (and virus particles) from 11am to 11pm daily for two weeks straight. It will, however, still be illegal to take the underground to the festival site without wearing a mask.

READ ALSO: The worst of both worlds: Germany’s coronavirus policy pleases no one

In view of the manifest absurdity of the current situation – and the fact that we are now one of the few remaining European countries with any form of legally-required non-pharmaceutical interventions left in place – it’s worth asking what has gone wrong in Germany, a country which, in the first phase of the pandemic, took a more liberal, measured approach than many of its neighbours and which, since 1949, has tended to uphold constitutional freedoms to a laudably high degree.

People get on and off an S-Bahn train in Frankfurt.

People get on and off an S-Bahn train in Frankfurt, with many people wearing masks. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Arne Dedert

READ ALSO: Germany’s current Covid mask rules

Politics in favour of ‘hardcore’ restrictions 

So why do we still have patently pointless busy-body laws? The first answer to that is: politics. In the coalition, two of the parties – the SPD and the Greens – are wedded to hardcore restrictions, trying to delay their removal in March and inserting back-doors for the states to keep them in place; it was only thanks to the FDP that there was any loosening at all, and to get rid of the bulk of restrictions elsewhere, they opted to sacrifice mask-free public transport use. (Their core voters are car-drivers). As with all bad compromises, however, no-one is satisfied – and everyone is gearing up for negotiations on what replaces the current fudged legal framework for remaining restrictions when it expires on 23rd September. 

Beyond the inevitable spat between a bullish FDP and panic-stricken SPD and Greens, the political problem in Germany is broader. The legislative instrument up for renewal is termed Infektionsschutzgesetz – literally: ‘infection protection law’ – while the state-level restrictions derived from it are called SARS-CoV-2-Eindämmungsverordnungen, which means ‘statutory orders to halt the spread of SARS-CoV-2′. As such, the political debate in Germany is still being held on the premise that we are able to control the spread of coronavirus and that there are state interventions which can prevent it from infecting the entire population.

READ ALSO: German politicians clash over Covid rules for autumn 

In most other European countries, the Omicron wave led to the realisation that it was no longer possible to stop Covid spreading without opting for Chinese-level lockdowns – and to a slightly risky, yet thus far broadly successful strategic switch towards, on the basis of broad vaccination, using the milder variant to build up herd immunity at a lower cost in terms of sickness. While it is easy to understand just how difficult a plunge this is to take – applied too early (i.e. before inoculation), the herd immunity strategy was the reckless hallmark of Johnsonian/Trumpian policy – the facts of the matter are plain to see. Accordingly, from ex-WHO SARS research coordinator Klaus Stöhr to Andreas Gassen at the GP association, there is no shortage of epidemiologists and medical professionals in Germany arguing that now is the time.

People walk past a test centre in Frankfurt.

People walk past a test centre in Frankfurt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Arne Dedert

German angst over Covid remains

It isn’t the time, though, because – and this is the issue – Germans aren’t ready. That’s the other reason we still have these pointless busy-body laws: because the populace is willing to abide by them. Part of the reason the UK got rid of re-imposed coronavirus restrictions for good in February was because compliance was so low as to make a mockery of them: in a country where ONS statistics estimate that 90 percent of the population has already had Covid and where mortality has plummeted, people no longer see the point in protecting themselves; ditto across the Channel, where, after complying to a surprisingly high degree with the excessive regulations in 2020, the French rediscovered their Gallic shrug this spring once they’d all had the disease.

We Germans, of course, are different. There has been no shortage of ink spilled on our national willingness to comply with even obviously pointless regulations and on our communal love of policing each other’s conduct (least of all by me). The problem with corona is that our notorious obsession with compliance is multiplied by another of our national traits: hypochondria. German sensitivity to illness has its good sides – even before Covid, we didn’t go into the office or to parties with streaming colds – but can, like all worthy characteristics, become pathological.

As political parties well know, a majority of Germans is still terrified of corona and has now come to view others’ mouths and noses primarily as a source of danger. After sandals at swimming pools, towels in saunas, and removing shoes at apartment doors, masks are now the next behavioural modification Germans are willing to make – and enforce – in their quest for marginally improved hygiene.

The stress, of course, is on ‘marginal’. As last week’s report on government restrictions underlined, masks can be a useful tool in stopping the spread of respiratory illness – provided, of course, they are worn properly and continuously. Germans beloved FFP2 masks do not seem to offer much more protection than other forms of face coverings. So forcing restaurant diners to put on a specific type of mask from the door to their table, where they then remove it to eat, drink, and be merry, is an exercise in pointlessness. Ditto on trains, where people also eat and drink (not least in the BordBistro…).

Of course, we didn’t really need an expert commission to tell us this: it is borne out by the fact that Germany’s highest ever rates of infection were back in March, when – along with a whole other range of bewildering regulations (anyone remember “2G+”?) – mask-wearing was in force and, moreover, while even famously light-touch Sweden (with whom our per-capita death rate is comparable) had absolutely no restrictions and an exceptionally low case-load.

A sign at the Cologne carnival in February 2022 saying entry is '2G-plus' - only for vaccinated/recovered people who can show a negative test, or boosted people.

A sign at the Cologne carnival in February 2022 saying entry is ‘2G-plus’ – only for vaccinated/recovered people who can show a negative test, or boosted people. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Banneyer

This and other glaringly obvious incongruities, however, won’t stop German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach and his like from trotting out their tired mantra that a high seven-day incidence means that restrictions are needed (regardless of hospitalisation or the overall burden of illness) and that restrictions must mean masks. It won’t stop Germans from agreeing with him, either: our unappealing assumption that we know best means that, rather than asking why our death rate is so high after two years of uninterrupted Covid restrictions of one form or another, we simply assume that neighbouring countries must somehow be wrong.

READ ALSO: School closures in Germany ‘cannot be ruled out’, says minister 

So expect plenty more exercises in cross-border train-travel pointlessness – along with the widespread re-imposition of indoor mask-wearing, hand-disinfection, and testing requirements this autumn. When it comes to coronavirus, it’s Groundhog Day in Germany – and, really, our time loop is stuck somewhere back in 2020/21. The train to 2022 leaves from Cologne every two hours at 42 minutes past.

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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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