Germany faces new Covid-19 restrictions after 'lockdown lite' failed

Bavaria set to become the first state to order people to stay at home again

Federal police officers controls a regional train from Berlin Central Station to BER Airport in Berlin, Germany, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. On the occasion of the nationwide day of action of the German Railways on the compulsory wearing of masks, there will be more checks in buses and trains. (Kay Nietfeld/dpa/dpa via AP)
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Parts of Germany face a return to the toughest Covid-19 restrictions, after ‘lockdown lite’ failed to slow the spread of the virus.

Bavaria’s Prime Minister Markus Soder is to introduce a 10-point plan to tackle the disease, including severe limits on movement.

A state of emergency will be implemented on Wednesday, restricting most people to their homes unless they have a valid reason.

He is introducing a 9pm curfew in the worst hotspots, distance learning for older school pupils and has told people they should stay at home wherever possible. The rules have yet to be approved by the Bavarian State Parliament.

Mr Soder said he was convinced tougher measures were needed and therefore there was “no point waiting”. The second wave was worse than the first, partly because the "psychological effect" was more damaging.

The measures could be considered nationwide after a partial shutdown failed to bring contagion rates down to manageable levels.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said that the government welcomed the move by Bavari.

"These are worrisome days," Seibert said, noting that infections rates "are not consistently going down" but rather rising in some areas and that Germany was "far from turning the corner".

"It is obvious and also necessary for individual states to think about which measures they could use to curb new infections," he said, calling Bavaria's planned tightening from Wednesday "good and right".

The eastern state of Saxony, coping with its own infections spike, followed suit with an announcement it would meet Tuesday to agree stricter rules.

Meanwhile, Merkel’s chief of staff called for a meeting between the federal government and heads of the country’s 16 states, which could be convened before Christmas, to decide on a plan.

"Because a lockdown of this kind doesn't work in the long run, we have to really tighten things up again, at least in the hot spots," Helge Braun said, in an online interview with Bild newspaper.

Germany shut restaurants, gyms and cinemas, but allowed schools and most of the economy to keep running as it tried a softer approach than other European countries. The measures — in place since the beginning of November — have made little impact on the spread of the disease, even as the government spends more than 15 billion euros ($18 billion) a month to compensate affected businesses.

People with protective face masks walk at Tauentzienstrasse shopping boulevard, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Berlin, Germany, December 5, 2020.    REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
People with protective face masks walk at Tauentzienstrasse shopping boulevard, amid the coronavirus disease outbreak in Berlin. Reuters

Last week, health officials said they believed Germany handled the first wave of coronavirus so well that many people doubt the disease's severity or even its existence, making the second wave worse.

The head of the Robert Koch Institute, Lothar Wielar, who is leading the country’s pandemic response, said Germany’s success in halting the infection rate in March and April had led to a “prevention paradox”.

He said many people were failing to take social distancing or quarantine seriously.

Mr Braun favours a return to distance learning for older school children in areas with contagion rates of more than 200 cases per 100,000 people over seven days. With contact restrictions similar to France and Belgium, Germany could lower the spread to levels that don’t threaten to overwhelm the health-care system “within three weeks,” he said.

The nationwide seven-day incidence rate currently stands at 146.2, compared with 120.1 at the start of the restrictions on Nov. 2, according to the Robert Koch Institute. The government’s goal is to lower the level to less than 50. Schleswig-Holstein in the north and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in the east are the only German states under that level.

“Corona isn’t letting go and therefore we need to react,” Mr Soeder, Bavaria’s premier, said on ARD television on Monday. “I’m sure we’ll meet again before Christmas. The current system isn’t enough.”

Germany’s new coronavirus cases rose by 10,910 in the 24 hours to Monday morning, taking the total to 1.19 million, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. There were 150 new fatalities on Monday, lifting the overall number of deaths to 18,989.

The so-called reproduction factor, an indicator of how fast the virus is spreading, rose to 1.21 on Sunday, from 1.13 the day before. This means that 100 people with the virus will likely infect 121 others. The government has said a level below one is needed to prevent the illness from overwhelming hospitals. The number of Covid-19 patients in intensive care has been at record levels for weeks.

“One can and must say that the measures we’ve taken so far haven’t been sufficient to really break the second wave of infections,” Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said on Monday in Berlin. Because of the rising incidence rates and the R-factor, “I am convinced that we will have to conduct very, very intensive counselling in the next few days and weeks.”