Covid-19 outbreak prompts lockdown calls in Germany's most populous state

Some 7,000 quarantined around meat processing plant at centre of new outbreak

 Quarantined employees of Toennies meat processing company receive food supplies in the district Suerenheide in Verl on Monday. Photograph:  Friedemann Vogel/EPA

Quarantined employees of Toennies meat processing company receive food supplies in the district Suerenheide in Verl on Monday. Photograph: Friedemann Vogel/EPA

 

Germany’s most populous state is facing calls for a total lockdown after a massive Covid-19 outbreak at one of Europe’s largest meat plants.

On Monday the country’s federal epidemiological agency, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), confirmed that Germany’s weekly reproduction rate was now well over 2, meaning one person infected with Covid-19 infects an average of more than two others.

That number rises to nearly three in the four-day average but RKI officials say the so-called R-rate is just one of many factors and that the spike can be attributed to several clusters already identified.

The arrival of summer, and temperatures nearing 30 degrees, has seen a rush for beer gardens and parks around the country at the weekend. While limited social distancing measures apply in Germany, none at all are observed at a growing number of illegal park parties in Berlin and other major cities.

An employee of a mobile testing unit of the German Red Cross and German army Bundeswehr conducts a Covid-19 test with residents in Wiedenbrueck, western Germany on June 22nd. Photograph: Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty
An employee of a mobile testing unit of the German Red Cross and German army Bundeswehr conducts a Covid-19 test with residents in Wiedenbrueck, western Germany on June 22nd. Photograph: Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty

The RKI says it has noticed an uptick in infections but it will wait and see if further hotspots emerge “beyond the known outbreaks”.

That was a nod to the Tönnies meat plant in North Rhine-Westphalia, where a fifth of the 6,500 workers have tested positive for the virus.

Nearly 50 testing teams have fanned out across the region to test workers, their relatives and neighbours. Some 7,000 people in villages around the plant have been quarantined and recently re-opened schools have closed again.

But many of the plant’s workers come from Poland, Bulgaria and Romania and have already left for home, prompting fears of a super-spreader event and increasing pressure for a lockdown of North Rhine-Westphalia, which is home to one in five Germans.

Reimposing restrictions

Leading Social Democrat (SPD) health expert Karl Lauterbach said on Monday it was “certain” there was widespread infection beyond migrant factory workers.

He said the upcoming summer holidays, and a lifting of travel restrictions across the continent meant “this could potentially spread the virus very far indeed”.

On Monday state premier Armin Laschet conceded he “cannot rule out for the moment” new restrictions, just two weeks after the state re-opened its borders to Belgium and the Netherlands. He may have no choice but to act: a safety measure agreed as part of Germany’s looser lockdown rules obliges municipalities to reimpose restrictions if the number of new infections rises beyond 50 per 100,000 population.

For Mr Laschet the meat plant outbreak is a political disaster. As a favourite to become the next leader of Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in December, he was an early, forceful voice for looser lockdown measures.

Now his regional party face claims it yielded to the powerful meat lobby and allowed Tönnies self-regulate rather than submit to the same health inspections as other businesses.

Tönnies plants produce about 750 tonnes of fresh meat daily in Germany and sell under own-label brands at Aldi, Lidl and other supermarkets.

On Monday SPD labour minister Hubertus Heil urged Germans to boycott all Tönnies meat products, claiming entire regions had been “held hostage” by the family-owned firm.