Germany’s pandemic restrictions end on Sunday after two years just as they began: with record Covid-19 infection levels and furious finger-pointing between federal and state politicians.
Masks will remain obligatory on public transport and in hospitals and care homes but are no longer required in German shops, restaurants and schools – despite a sixfold rise in infections in the last fortnight.
“We need protective measures as long as there is a large number of unvaccinated people,” said Dr Karl Lauterbach, Social Democratic Party federal health minister, “but can’t continue to shield the whole country to protect a small group of those unwilling to be vaccinated.”
He said the decision, demanded by his liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) coalition partners and backed by the Bundestag on Friday, was a “difficult compromise” with 16 federal states. Regional leaders dismissed the move as an “unspeakable mistake” that shifts responsibility for managing the pandemic on to them.
In future they can maintain – or reactivate – restrictions if they identify virus hotspots and a surge in hospitalisations. They warn that this is too late to stop a new infection wave.
With Germany now in its fifth wave, Baden-Württemberg state premier Winfried Kretschmann said: “The virus is spreading like wildfire but instead of heavy equipment and fire-fighting planes, we are supposed to fight the fire with buckets of water and garden hoses.”
Bavarian health minister Florian Herrmann called the new regime a “procedural disgrace because no one knows any more which rule applies when”. As in neighbouring countries, Germany’s infection rates are soaring, with a record 1,700 cases per 100,000 of population registered on Friday.
Nearly 300,000 cases were logged in 24 hours, according to official figures on Friday, with 226 more Covid-related deaths bringing Germany’s death toll since the start of the pandemic to 126,646.
After a difficult vaccination campaign, just 76 per cent of the population have received two jabs against Covid-19, while 58 per cent have taken a booster. As the highly transmissible Omicron sub-variant spreads through Germany, a poll on Friday by Forsa for RTL television found found Germans divided on the end to restrictions: some 52 per cent think the end is coming too early while 46 per cent are in favour.
This week a vaccine mandate came into effect for all workers in Germany’s health and care sectors and Bundestag MPs held their first debate on a proposed Covid-19 vaccine mandate for all over-18s; a final decision is not expected for some weeks.
Omicron has swiftly taken over as the dominant variant in Germany, accounting for 73 per cent of infections, and is expected to almost entirely replace the Delta variant in the coming days. As elsewhere, though, the exponential rise in infections has not translated into a surge in hospitalisations.
Leading German virologist Hendrik Streeck said the country had reached a point where widespread spread of the virus was under way. He urged people to “get vaccinated so you are ready to face the infection”.