Germany moves towards staggered lockdown loosening

Pace and scale of reopening depends on rollout of rapid antigen test regime

People wear face masks walking past the closed Titania Palast cineplex movie theatre in Berlin. Photograph: John MacDougall / AFP via Getty

People wear face masks walking past the closed Titania Palast cineplex movie theatre in Berlin. Photograph: John MacDougall / AFP via Getty

 

Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders will agree a cautious, staggered loosening of Germany’s three-month lockdown on Wednesday – amid restriction fatigue, vaccination frustration and looming elections.

A draft plan proposes extending the closure of non-essential retail and services until the end of March, with the pace and scale of a roll-back hinging on how quickly Germany can roll out a rapid antigen test regime.

Plans to flood the country with such tests by March 1st were halted last week amid supply concerns. On Tuesday, Dr Merkel said several hundred million tests a month would be required to meet demand from Germany’s population of 83 million.

“No doubt we’ll need the month of March to build up an all-encompassing test strategy,” she told a private meeting with MPs of her ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), according to one attendee.

Mindful of what she called citizens’ “ardent” wish to reopen the country, the chancellor and regional politicians are likely to ease contact restrictions to allow up to five adult members of two households meet again from next Monday. Current restrictions allow contact with only one person outside a household.

After a staggered and limited reopening of schools last month, followed by hairdressers on Monday, the German leader is pushing to extend the closure of restaurants, cafes, bars as well as all cultural and sport facilities until March 28th.

She will expect stiff resistance from state leaders: some are facing elections in the coming weeks and all are feeling pressure from frustrated citizens and business leaders.

A new front has opened this week, with politicians from Dr Merkel’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), her junior coalition partner, joining forces to criticise the chancellor’s crisis management in Berlin.

SPD co-leader Norbert Walter-Borjans said Dr Merkel’s crisis co-ordination was “lacking” and there was “room for improvement” among her ministers for health and economics, both from her centre-right CDU.

Federal finance minister Olaf Scholz, SPD hopeful to succeed Dr Merkel as chancellor in the autumn, said Germany had to organise itself better on vaccinations. To date, just 6.39 million doses have been administered, compared with more than 30 million in the UK, with large quantities of vaccine from AstraZeneca – approved for use only on Germans aged under 65 – reportedly lying unused in refrigerated depots.

Neighbouring countries

Given fears over mutation hotspots in the Czech Republic and northern Austria, the leaders of neighbouring Bavaria and Saxony are demanding a complete rewrite of Germany’s vaccination plan.

Like many countries, Germany has prioritised older citizens, those in residential care and nursing staff, with vaccinations by invitation in dedicated centres.

Bavarian premier Markus Söder wants the programme opened out beyond vaccination centres to include doctors and mobile clinics in universities. Saxon leader Michael Kretschmer agrees that a more pragmatic approach to vaccination, with greater geographical flexibility to allow vaccinations for anyone near Austria or the Czech Republic, where incidence rates are beyond 700.

“The three-country area is suffering greatly, we need more vaccine doses and rapid tests in hotspot counties around the border,” said Mr Söder. “We have to catch up with the dramatic backlog Germany has in vaccinations; we have to do better.”

Bavaria and Saxony have offered extra vaccine doses and hospital beds to neighbouring countries.

German industry groups have reacted with frustration to the news of the lockdown extending into a fourth month.

“This is the opposite of an opening strategy,” said Guido Zöllick, president of Germany’s hospitality federation. “We demand a clear timetable with concrete, understandable criteria of what is possible – and when.”