Germany to extend lockdown into February amid new restrictions

New leader of Merkel’s ruling party puts together his own team to advise on Covid-19

A lone cyclist riding past closed shops on an  empty Friedrichstrasse in Berlin. Photograph:   Stefanie Loos/AFP via Getty Images

A lone cyclist riding past closed shops on an empty Friedrichstrasse in Berlin. Photograph: Stefanie Loos/AFP via Getty Images

 

in Berlin Germany is set to extend and tighten its Covid-19 lockdown until mid-February, with new rules requiring medical-grade masks in shops and on public transport.

The new measures, discussed by chancellor Angela Merkel with 16 state leaders on Tuesday, are Germany’s latest effort to contain the spread of virus variants first seen in the UK and South Africa. 

Neighbouring Denmark is likely to follow soon, while to the west the acting Dutch government is to announce tighter measures on Wednesday.

During a reportedly tense video conference on Tuesday, Dr Merkel criticised regional leaders for making competing and contradictory lockdown demands.

While one camp – and a growing chorus of experts – have urged Germany to introduce a tougher lockdown, including curfews, other state leaders are wary of public pushback.

“I wouldn’t call the situation hopeless but we need a comprehensive implementation of these measures,” said Dr Merkel. “We wouldn’t agree this if we thought there was no chance.”

Under the new measures all Germans will be required to swap home-made masks for disposable surgical masks or medical-grade masks.

Restrictions have already been in place since mid-November, with schools and non-essential stores closed.

German employees will be entitled to work from home immediately “if there are no compelling operation reasons” for them not to do so.

Those required to work in an office must be given a 10sq m space or firms must provide additional security measures. These include adequate ventilation, particle-proof partitions, medical-grade masks, regular Covid-19 tests and the ability to take lunch breaks individually.

Federal structures

From the start of the pandemic German federal structures, in particular health competencies divided between Berlin and state capitals, have complicated Germany’s strategy.

After rows over the first lockdown, and loosening up of restrictions, more recent disputes have been dominated by the quantities – and the speed – of Berlin’s vaccine distribution to the states.

This week saw another complicating factor added to the mix: the new leader of Dr Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Armin Laschet. Anxious to push public health measures while raising his political profile in a busy election year, Mr Laschet has put together his own team of experts to advise on Covid-19 policy.

Led by Bonn virologist Hendrik Streeck, the team says Germany’s strategy to date has “not had the hoped-for success”.

Currently Germany has an incidence rate of 134 per 100,000 of population, flattening somewhat, with 989 deaths registered on Tuesday. But continuing the current lockdown strategy, the Laschet team warned, could leave the population “no longer reachable or convinced”.

It issued a paper proposing that instead of further lockdowns there should be more differentiated measures “drawing on an understanding of the future new normal, living in public and in private with this virus”.

Tensions

Rather than continue the medical-led approach dominant in the last year, the team proposes a new “research-based, interdisciplinary monitoring” strategy co-ordinated centrally by Berlin that also takes into account economic and psychological concerns.

The paper, likely to increase tensions between Dr Merkel and Mr Laschet, attacks a sizeable digitalisation backlog in Germany’s public administration as “an additional burden” in the pandemic caused by “a lack of leadership with enough technical competence”.

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