German Chancellor Angel Merkel warned that a new strict lockdown would last for at least 10 weeks after a strain of Covid-19 that surfaced in Britain could have triggered a rapid increase in contagion rates.
Infections and fatalities have roughly doubled since the end of November in Germany, rising to nearly 2 million and almost 42,000 respectively. The infection rate has been climbing in recent days and reached 165 cases per 100,000 people on Tuesday, more than triple the level the government has determined to be manageable without wide-ranging contact restrictions.
German officials are on alert over a strain of the virus that could be more than 50 per cent more transmissible. Since being detected in south-east England in mid-December, British hospitals have been swamped with Covid-19 patients as infections surge despite a faster pace of vaccinations than anywhere else in Europe.
The stricter lockdown was introduced across Germany after curbs imposed on December 16 had a minimal effect on curtailing the outbreak. New lockdown orders are now being extended across all 16 of Germany's states.
Germany also wants to ensure laboratories test whether Covid-19 patients have the mutated strain of the virus first found in the UK.
“I know that these are once again particular difficulties, hardships for many,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said. “Also social hardships, but at the moment that is the arena in which the virus is spreading above all others.”
The new restrictions mean international visitors from high-risk areas must submit two negative Covid-19 tests from quarantine. Private meetings between households are largely prohibited and local travel bans are being imposed on those from areas where there are more than 200 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people.
All non-essential shops, day-care centres and most schools are shut.
Analysts at banks included downgraded economic forecasts to account for renewed lockdowns on Tuesday.
JPMorgan estimates the eurozone economy suffered a massive 9 per cent contraction in the fourth quarter of 2020 and now projects a further 1 per cent downturn in the first quarter of this year, compared with its earlier forecast for 2 per cent growth.
UBS expects a first-quarter drop of 0.4 per cent, compared with its earlier expectation of 2.4 per cent growth. Goldman Sachs Group predicts a slight contraction, with major uncertainty and “risks skewed further toward the downside”.
Economists predict that it’ll be the second quarter — after more than a year of misery — when a recovery ultimately gets under way. The bounce-back could be sharp, at least initially, once restrictions are eased and infections subside, as more of the population is vaccinated.
Germany announced grants to scientists of €200 million ($243.1m) to test the gene sequence of Covid-19 samples from patients to determine the latest trends in the dominant strain. This is to determine whether they match the new, more infectious variants of the virus that are spreading rapidly in Britain and South Africa.
Meanwhile, Bavaria’s state leader said on Tuesday that the country should also consider introducing an obligatory vaccination against Covid-19 for staff in nursing homes. Not enough health workers in old age and care homes are willing to get the shot, and the government should consider making it obligatory, he said.
“I am against a general obligation to get vaccinated. But we have to consider raising protection for the especially sensitive areas such as nursing homes,” Markus Soeder said.
Misinformation is undermining Germany’s vaccination campaign, Mr Soeder said. “It’s surprising. I think it has to do with this incredible fake news that spooks around on the web.”
Germany already has obligatory vaccination for the measles, and coronavirus is far more dangerous, he said.