Millions of German commuters will breathe more easily on Thursday when the obligation to wear a medical mask on public transport lapses.
Along with Spain, which abolishes masks on public transport next Tuesday, Germany held out longer on masks than most of its European neighbours.
Explaining the shift, federal health minister Karl Lauterbach, a trained epidemiologist, says the pandemic situation has “stabilised, the population has built up high immunity, and the experts who advise us no longer believe there will be another big, serious winter wave”.
“We just need to put more emphasis on personal responsibility and voluntary approach,” he added.
As masks vanish, a robust debate is under way in Germany: amid everything that went right in its approach to the pandemic, what went wrong? Top of the list: the long-term negative effects of school and childcare closures.
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“In hindsight that was a mistake but it was recommended by the scientists who advised the government,” said Lauterbach on German television. “Scientists said schools must be closed because it will lead to virus transmission, but the level of knowledge was simply not good enough.”
Lauterbach, then opposition health spokesman for today’s governing Social Democratic Party (SPD), was one of Germany’s most vocal proponents of school closures.
But his critical remark now is perceived a broadside against Dr Christian Drosten, a leading German epidemiologist and adviser to then chancellor Angela Merkel. Defending himself, Drosten insists he only ever called for localised school closures in meetings with Merkel and regional leaders.
“Then next morning, the news broke that one state after another was closing schools,” he said. “That must have been down to the dynamic of the discussion… after we left the room.”
School closures are weighing, too, on the mind of Lothar Wieler, the former president of Germany’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI) – responsible for monitoring and fighting infectious diseases.
As visible in Germany as Tony Holohan in Ireland, Wieler says his institution “always issued recommendations with which one could have kept schools and childcare going, though with greater effort”.
“Throughout the entire pandemic, the wriggle room on offer was never examined with the necessary care, calm and objectivity,” he said.
Critics accuse Wieler of amnesia and revisionism, pointing to a series of dire warnings of widespread outbreaks in schools and childcare and demands for extended school holidays.
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In a November 2021 ruling on school closures, the federal constitutional court noted that Wieler’s RKI lacked data to say if a ban on classroom lessons was more effective than keeping schools open with twice-weekly testing and other measures “because the efficacy of various protection measures have not been systematically and continuously gathered and evaluated”.
Instead data is now being gathered and evaluated on the negative consequences of 183 lost days in the classroom.
A recent meta study published in Nature Human Behaviour, examining 40 studies in 15 countries, estimated that 1.6 million children worldwide were affected by school closures and lesson cancellations. This in turn left them on average with a 35 per cent shortfall in their educational development – in particular in maths.
Teachers interviewed by German researchers, echoing colleagues elsewhere, have flagged learning deficits among socially disadvantaged children and general psychological issues.
“My impression is that the schools have a lot of work to practise learning routines and get social interaction back on track,” says Dr Benjamin Fauth of Germany’s Institute for Education Analysis. “Those who suffered in particular were those who already had it tough.”
Fitting the mea culpa mood, this week’s Die Zeit newspaper carries two pages of Covid confessions. Leading politicians confessed they were more obsessed with rules and not enough with guarding fundamental freedoms, while leading medical experts regret polarising public attacks on colleagues.
“I have to ask myself,” remarked Dr Hendrik Streeck, a virologist and regular talkshow guest, “why didn’t I pick up the phone more often?”