Germany Locks Down Forward of Christmas as Coronavirus Deaths Rise
BERLIN – Germans will be forced into a strict lockdown over Christmas after weeks of milder restrictions on public life failed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which led to a record number of new infections and deaths, said Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday.
As of Wednesday, unneeded shops, schools and hairdressers will have to close, and companies are being asked to offer their employees a longer vacation break or allow them to work from home. The number of people who are allowed to meet privately – even over Christmas – will also be further reduced. Outdoor New Year celebrations are all but prohibited, fireworks sale and public gatherings are prohibited.
“All of this will have an impact on the holidays, we know that, but we were forced to take action and we are doing it now,” Ms. Merkel said at a press conference, announcing the measures that will remain in force until then 10 January.
Germany has been widely recognized for its success in curbing the spread of the virus in the spring through an aggressive, science-based approach implemented through contact tracing, early and aggressive testing, and coordinated nationwide restrictions. However, since then the country has stumbled badly and created a false sense of complacency. The heads of state and government of the 16 German federal states, who are responsible for the implementation of the health policy, have also refused to follow the demands of the Federal Chancellor and the medical experts for another lockdown.
At the end of September, Ms. Merkel warned that the number of new infections could rise to 19,000 per day if Germany did not take more radical measures. The Chancellor’s warning came about a month later when the country experienced more than 21,500 new infections within 24 hours.
Rather than aligning with other European countries – including the UK, France and Ireland – which were imposing severe restrictions as the numbers rose, German governors argued over how far the regulations could go. The result was a series of more flexible, softer measures across the country – referred to by the German news media as the “Lockdown Light” – that closed bars, restaurants, theaters and cinemas, but allowed small groups of people to meet and unneeded businesses, Schools and hotels to leave open.
The aim was to reduce social contacts by 75 percent, said Ms. Merkel when they were announced at the end of October. But with more and more people heading out for Christmas shopping and gathering at outdoor stalls to buy things like the hot mulled wine, which is a seasonal ritual, a reduction of only 40 percent has been achieved, Merkel said on Sunday.
“The ‘Lockdown Light’ had an effect, but it wasn’t enough,” said Markus Söder, Governor of Bavaria. “The situation is out of control.”
New infections and deaths from the coronavirus have continued to rise in recent weeks, with outbreaks centered in the elderly, particularly those living in nursing homes and other care facilities. Germany recorded 20,200 new infections on Sunday, an increase of more than 2,000 compared to the same day last week. This is based on data from the Robert Koch Institute, the German health authority.
The country has lost 21,787 people to the virus and the number of people being treated in the intensive care unit is increasing, the institute said in a brief report released on Saturday that the rate of new infections has remained dangerously high and the health of the country’s system is under strain, if not brought under control.
“If we are not careful, Germany will be Europe’s problem child,” said Söder.
Last week, the National Academy of Sciences in Germany called for a “decisive and uniform” lockdown over the holidays. On Wednesday, the Chancellor made an unusually emotional appeal to the Germans to listen to the scientists. The normally reluctant Chancellor stressed her own training as a physicist when she urged people to reduce their social contacts before the holidays in order to protect older and more vulnerable members of society and their own families.
Apr. 12, 2020, 5:57 pm ET
“If we have too many contacts before Christmas and this is the last Christmas that we celebrate with our grandparents later, we have missed something,” said Ms. Merkel. “We would do well to take what scientists tell us really seriously.”
As Germany prepares to shut down, some other European countries are loosening their own rules. France has lifted its curfew and reopened non-essential businesses, Ireland has reopened restaurants, shops, hotels and bars and gathered people outside, and England is preparing to ease restrictions on private gatherings to allow people from up to three households to come Can mix 23-27 December.
The Germans are increasingly critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic. Since the end of August, the demonstrations against the measures have risen from several hundred to several thousand. The protesters include a mix of anti-vaccination people, angry citizens and right-wing extremists. A demonstration planned for Saturday in Dresden by critics of the coronavirus measures has been banned by the city authorities. They cited public health concerns, a decision upheld by the country’s highest court.
As of Wednesday, Germans will only be allowed to celebrate with children and children from two separate households in groups of no more than five people over the age of 14. From December 24th to 26th, people from up to four households and children are allowed to meet, although no exceptions will be made during the New Year holidays.
Companies and freelancers affected by the restrictions will receive compensation from the government for up to 90 percent of fixed costs or up to 500,000 euros, which is the equivalent of 605,000 US dollars, the country’s finance minister, Olaf Scholz, said on Sunday. “There will be a very large package of economic and interim aid,” estimated at € 11 billion per month, he said.
Forcing stores to close their doors in the final weeks of the Christmas shopping season is a blow to many of the country’s small and medium-sized businesses, which have already struggled to recover from the stricter lockdown imposed earlier this year.
“The faster we reduce the number of new infections, the faster our economy can recover,” said German Economics Minister Peter Altmaier, who described the new restrictions as “tough, but necessary”.
Although a German company, BioNTech, worked with American pharmaceutical company Pfizer to develop the first vaccine against the coronavirus, which was approved in several countries, including the UK and the US, Ms. Merkel said Germany would await approval from European authorities would start giving injections. The European Medicines Agency has announced that it will approve the BioNTech Pfizer vaccine until December 29th.