As Germany’s fourth and worst Covid-19 wave to date fills up its intensive care wards, the pandemic is mutating in real time from a public health challenge to a crisis of political credibility.
Previous laps of pandemic prevention were characterised by time-consuming tugs of war – over money and political competences – between the federal and state governments.
Now the ongoing interregnum in Berlin, seven weeks after the federal election, has added another wild card to the pandemic poker.
New infections in Germany are nearing 24,000 a day, up a third on the same time last week, while the so-called incidence rate has for the first time topped 300 new cases per 100,000 of population.
German president Frank Walter Steinmeier read politicians of all hues the riot act on Monday, listing their failings that had ensured the country’s “fourth wave is hitting us harder than it had to”.
Aggravating the pandemic, he said, was Germans’ collective fear of the new and their compulsive need to try to regulate everything; an obsession with finding people to blame rather than finding solutions; and German politicians’ need to shift responsibility onto others – scientists or other levels of government – rather than accept it themselves.
“Where politics hides itself behind science or where science puts itself in the place of politics . . . then we weaken trust both in science and in democracy,” said Steinmeier at a public event in Berlin.
His scorching words were directed equally at the outgoing government of chancellor Angela Merkel, now ruling in a caretaker capacity, and the presumptive coalition of Social Democratic Party (SPD), Green and Free Democratic Party (FDP).
His remarks echo a furious open letter, signed by 35 leading German scientists at the weekend, accusing Germany’s outgoing and incoming governments of “passively waiting it out”. Instead of acting in a timely, proactive manner to tackle the spread of the virus, they had merely confirmed the doubts of vaccination sceptics.
A month ago outgoing federal health minister Jens Spahn insisted Germany’s Covid-19 epidemic was effectively over. Rather than start with booster shots, federal states closed down their vaccination centres and agreed to end months of free Covid-19 tests for all.
The incoming SPD-led administration went further, vowing in coalition talks not to renew an emergency epidemic law that legalised lockdowns when it expired later this month.
Leading the push to end emergency rules was the liberal FDP, a consistent critic of last year’s movement restrictions and retail closures.
A month on, with major German cities like Munich running out of intensive care beds, political Berlin is preparing a major series of U-turns – just don’t expect anyone to admit as much.
Spahn has insisted Germany must do more, not less, to tackle the pandemic. If his remarks last month were understood in any other way, then he “wasn’t clear enough”.
Later this week, when state leaders meet Merkel in Berlin, they are expected to reintroduce free tests and even tighter restrictions on unvaccinated people. In future, states will be allowed to restrict access for the unvaccinated at all retail and cultural venues as well as require daily tests to use public transport.
The latter proposal has already been dismissed as unworkable by Germany’s public transport operators.
“We have open transport systems, how can 15 million people who travel daily be checked?” asked Lars Wagner, spokesman for the federal association of public transport operators.
Others say the rules do not go far enough, such as possible future school closures or curfews.
At 67 per cent, Germany’s vaccination rate is one of the lowest in western Europe but its death rate – 1,164 deaths per million people – is still below the EU average of 1,828.
On Monday Austria introduced some of the toughest rules in Europe, demanding unvaccinated people stay home except for essential shopping and medical care.
Germany’s influential Bild tabloid rowed in on the controversy on Monday, asking: “Why have state leaders not tightened up themselves everything that is possible instead of demanding tough federal rules?”
The paper chose not to remind its readers how, three weeks ago, it insisted: “There can be only one solution, a full return to freedom . . . Germany needs its freedom day!”