Germany was praised among European nations for its handling of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. But on Tuesday it suffered its deadliest day yet and infection rates are still rising. So what’s gone wrong?
Speaking in the German parliament Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that nationwide restrictions brought in on November 2 had not proven effective enough, with too many people now dead or in intensive care units with Covid-19.
A day after the country reported a record 590 deaths, Merkel grew emotional as she appealed to her fellow Germans to keep one another safe by reducing their social contacts before the holidays, especially if they plan to visit older people.
“If we have too many contacts now before Christmas, and that ends up making it the last Christmas with the grandparents, then we will have failed. We should not do that,” she told a budget session in the Bundestag.
The Chancellor added that the daily death toll was a price too high for keeping some shops open, including much-loved waffle and mulled wine stands in the festive season. “There are still 14 days until Christmas and we have to do everything we can to prevent exponential growth again,” she said.
Merkel urged federal state leaders to start the Christmas holidays sooner, on December 16 rather than December 19, to help people limit their contacts and allow them to isolate for longer before seeing older relatives.
The Chancellor also wants a full lockdown to be implemented for several days, possibly two weeks, after Christmas in order to bring down infection rates. But for that to happen, she needs to get the leaders of all 16 states on side.
As Europe’s second wave of coronavirus infections gathered steam going into the autumn, some European nations – like France and England – imposed national lockdown measures. However, Germany’s state and federal leaders agreed on lighter restrictions.
A nationwide partial lockdown was imposed which required restaurant and bars to remain closed, but schools and shops remained open. People were urged to avoid travel, keep their contacts to an absolute minimum and limit public meetings to no more than five members of two different households.
These restrictions are due to be relaxed over the Christmas period in much of the country, allowing people to meet in groups of up to 10 people, not counting children.
While some states, like Bavaria, favor stricter measures, others are opposed. Meanwhile, Germany is struggling to contain a surge in new infections and death rates have continued to climb.
The country suffered its deadliest day of the pandemic Tuesday, with 590 known fatalities, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) said Wednesday. The previous record was 487 known deaths, reported December 2, according to RKI, the country’s disease and control agency.
The RKI also reported 20,815 new daily infections on Wednesday, about 3,500 more than the same day of the previous week. The total tally of Covid-19 infections in the country is now 1,218,524.
At least 19,932 people have died of Covid-19 in Germany, the public health agency’s data shows. This figure is still much lower than that of fellow European nations such as the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain, reflecting Germany’s success in handling the first pandemic wave.
Health Minister: ‘It cannot go on like this’
Addressing the Bundestag, Merkel said Germany was finding the second wave more demanding than the first, although the country could see “light at the end of the tunnel” thanks to progress on Covid-19 vaccines.
Calling for state leaders to back tougher measures, she said it was wrong, in her opinion, that hotels were open during the Christmas season, as it could create an incentive for relatives to make overnight trips.
“I also think it’s right to close the schools during this time either by extending the holidays until January 10, or doing digital lessons, whatever, but we need fewer contacts,” Merkel said.
Germany’s leaders warned last month that if the country failed to rein in rising infections, its much vaunted healthcare system could collapse within weeks.
Health Minister Jens Spahn reiterated that message in an interview Tuesday with ARD TV, saying: “High costs, high death tolls, high strain on our intensive care units. It cannot go on like this. We have to look out for one another – even if some don’t want to hear it anymore.”
The head of Germany’s Interdisciplinary Agency for Intensive Care Medicine (DIVI) urged people Wednesday to try not to visit their loved ones during the holidays.
“At that moment you all get together for Christmas and say it will all be under control,” said Uwe Janssens, president of DIVI, in an interview with CNN affiliate N-TV. “Then seven days later, your grandma gets a high fever, another seven days later she gets transferred to the ICU and another three days later, maybe, she is dead. Maybe then your eyes will open, but then, unfortunately, it will be too late.”
‘Hard lockdown’ in Saxony
Several German states have already decided to tighten restrictions to try to get the coronavirus situation under control.
The state of Saxony, in southeast Germany, will go into what officials there call a “hard lockdown” next week, closing most shops and moving schools to online classes.
Bavaria, which has some of the highest numbers of coronavirus infections, also agreed Tuesday on tighter lockdown restrictions. Its governor, Markus Soeder, criticized people who shrug off high death numbers as he gave an emotional speech in Bavaria’s state parliament.
“I think it is highly disturbing and extremely outrageous if the reaction is just a shrug of the shoulders. Death tolls are not just statistics,” he said. “Of course it is mostly older people, but we are talking about our parents and grandparents. How can some react so heartlessly and coldly when talking about this subject?”
His comments come against a backdrop of skepticism in some parts of German society. A string of demonstrations has taken place against the country’s anti-pandemic measures, with many protesters denying the severity of the virus.
CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen reported from Berlin and Stephanie Halasz from London, while Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London.