Germany’s “lockdown lite” is likely to go on into the new year, as Angela Merkel, said the country would have to live with restrictions “for the foreseeable future”, and her chief of staff said some restrictions would stay in place into March.
The German chancellor and the heads of the country’s 16 federal states thrashed out an agreement on Wednesday to extend and tighten measures against coronavirus, with rules eased over the Christmas holidays to let people celebrate together.
While the lockdown is officially due to end on 20 December, Merkel has indicated that another extension is likely. “We will have to continue living with restrictions for the foreseeable future,” Merkel told the BDA employers’ association.
In a TV interview on Thursday morning, the chancellor’s chief of staff, Helge Braun, said life would not immediately return to normal with the start of the new year. “Difficult winter months lie ahead of us,” Braun told the German broadcaster RTL. “That will continue until March.”
“This restraint that we all have had to show, will accompany us throughout January, February and March, involving restrictive measures if our individual behaviour doesn’t suffice”, added the politician for the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Under the lockdown rules agreed on Wednesday, bars and restaurants will remain open only for takeaway while nurseries, schools and shops will remain open.
From 1 December, private gatherings will be limited to five adults, with that number rising to 10 over Christmas. People are asked to avoid social contact for a week before visiting family at Christmas.
Merkel said the second lockdown that came into effect at the start of the month had had some effect in slowing down the spread of the virus. “It is unthinkable where we would be today if we hadn’t been ready for this … four weeks ago,” said the chancellor. By reducing social contact by about 40%, Merkel said, “the dramatic rise in infections has been stopped”.
But while exponential growth has been stopped, the daily numbers of infections remain at a high level.
Germany’s disease control agency said on Thursday it had recorded 22,268 new infections in the past 24 hours, down by about 300 compared with a week ago. For the past eight days in a row, Germany has recorded more than 200 Covid-related fatalities, with 389 confirmed deaths on Thursday.
The new lockdown rules have been received sceptically by German media, with many commentators voicing concerns about a lack of clear guidelines and lack of a measure drastic enough to guarantee a downward trend in infections rates. The extended lockdown, wrote Der Spiegel, showed “how even the indefatigable chancellor is running out of strength after eight months of the pandemic”.
The newspaper Die Welt questioned the government’s wisdom in trying to keep schools open at all costs, despite evidence pointing to older pupils being among those driving the pandemic’s spread. “In view of the implicit admission that schools could play a central role, the recent decisions concerning educational establishments are surprisingly moderate,” wrote the centre-right broadsheet.
In Germany’s coronavirus hotspot, the Thuringian district of Hildburghausen, authorities are to carry out mass tests on children to establish to what extent they have contributed to the region’s surge in infections.
The east German district reported a record 603 cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days, more than four times Germany’s average incidence of 140.
“We will now conduct the first mass test for children and young people, who can be tested for free, starting next Tuesday,” Bodo Ramelow told the broadcaster ARD. “Then we will know for the first time: how safe are schools and kindergartens?”
Since Wednesday, Hildburghausen has had a harder lockdown than elsewhere in the country, with nurseries and schools closed, and residents only allowed to leave their apartments if they have a good reason. The local lockdown is in place until 13 December.
On Wednesday night, about 400 people broke the local curfew to protest against the lockdown in Hildburghausen’s market square. Police said they used pepper spray to disperse protesters.