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OPINION: Germany has never had a real Covid lockdown

Germany is in the grip of a third Covid wave, with intensive care beds filling up. As politicians and medical experts talk of a “lockdown”, many people are confused. Aren’t we already in a lockdown? No, and this is part of the confusion, writes Rachel Loxton.

OPINION: Germany has never had a real Covid lockdown
People walking in central Frankfurt am Main on March 27th. Photo: DPA

Living in Berlin throughout the pandemic has had its ups and downs. Like in most places there have been strict measures aimed at slowing down the spread of Covid. 

For nearly six months now (!) restaurants, cafes and bars have been shut (except for takeaway) in Germany. Things like gyms, cinemas and museums have also mostly been shut. And clubs have been closed for over a year. 

All this is absolutely rubbish, and it has been difficult for everyone. 

But I would argue that we haven’t really had a proper lockdown in Germany. Although there are contact restrictions, we have still been able to meet people, and we haven’t been forced to stay indoors. 

We’ve been encouraged to cut down on social contact and form a “social bubble” but not ordered to.

The closest we’ve come to a national lockdown in Germany is during the first wave last spring when people were not allowed to meet with others indoors. 

At its most strict, we were allowed to meet with one other person outside, and told to only leave our homes for essential reasons. But this included unlimited exercise time and we didn’t need a form to go outside as was the case in some other European countries. 

Travel was also banned in March 2020 for a period of time, but this has never been the case during the second and current third wave. At the moment travel is discouraged, but this didn’t stop tens of thousands of German tourists flying to Mallorca during the Easter holidays.

READ ALSO: ‘I really needed a break’: Pandemic-weary Germans find ‘freedom’ on Mallorca

People sitting on a bench in a Berlin park on April 4th 2020. Photo: DPA

Of course last spring everyone was shocked by the extreme measures and simply getting to grips with the concept of the “coronavirus lockdown” which we’d never had to think about before. 

Since the first wave and throughout the pandemic there have been localised outbreaks that have seen small-scale lockdowns in Germany with people forced to quarantine, such as after outbreaks at meat plants or in housing complexes.

What’s in a name?

I think it’s important to consider the way we use the term “lockdown” as politicians and medical experts are talking at the moment about bringing in a new lockdown to control the rising number of Covid infections. 

READ ALSO: Could a ‘bridge lockdown’ be the answer to Germany’s spiralling Covid cases?

“Aren’t we already in a lockdown?” I’ve heard people ask. 

The Cambridge dictionary defines a lockdown as “a period of time in which people are not allowed to leave their homes or travel freely because of a dangerous disease”.

By branding all tough coronavirus measures as a lockdown, we’ve risked taking away the seriousness of what it actually is and means to be essentially banned from socialising, moving around and therefore stuck inside most of the time. 

I’ve been guilty of it myself – often talking about “Germany’s lockdown” with friends and family. At times I may have even called it a lockdown in stories for The Local although we have tried to make a big effort to call it a shutdown, lockdown measures or a partial lockdown. 

From ‘lockdown light’ to ‘hard lockdown’

Although the first action taken in November was widely called a “partial lockdown” or a “lockdown light” by German media and politicians (although not in official government documents as far I’m aware), come December when schools and hairdressers were closed, it was suddenly branded a “hard lockdown”. 

Yes, there were stronger restrictions, but this was no hard lockdown. 

The way we talk about the rules leads to people both inside and outside Germany thinking the country is in a different position than the reality. 

People in Germany have had a lot more freedom than other countries.

In France there was a full national lockdown last spring and people needed a form every time they left the house. Spain and Italy also had very strict lockdowns in the first wave, with more regional tough restrictions in the second wave.

I regularly give the word on the ground from Germany for BBC Radio in my home country of Scotland. During these reports I’ve had to emphasise that Germany’s “lockdown” is a partial lockdown, and not the same as Scotland’s. 

In Scotland, among other measures, people are still not allowed to visit anyone else indoors and there was until very recently a legal requirement to stay at home for all but essential purposes, which had been in force since January 5th.

A tweet by German political scientist Marcel Dirsus that gathered more than 11,000 likes sums it up.

“I wish Germans had never started using the word lockdown,” he said. “It made them overestimate the severity of pandemic restrictions and now it’s tougher to sell an actual lockdown to people because they think they’ve had it all along.

In the tweet thread he pointed out that people in Germany have “kept working at the office. They could always go see a friend at their house if they wanted to. They never needed to fill in a form to go jogging. Germany never had a hotel quarantine for international arrivals.”

“If you want to let people hang out with friends or work at the office even though they clearly aren’t essential personnel, so be it. It’s a legitimate position I happen to disagree with. But do everyone a favour and stop calling it lockdown.”

When I contacted Dirsus he added: “Germany never had a lockdown… But because journalists and politicians kept referring to existing contact restrictions as lockdowns, it’s now more difficult to impose one because Germans think they’ve had it all along.”

Tobias Kurth, professor of public health and epidemiology at the Charité in Berlin, said using the term lockdown for any rules “absolutely was and is damaging”.

“In the end, Germany never had a real lockdown and the consequences we all feel now,” he said. “Likely, as we have used the word lockdown in variations since November, now people may think, ‘Well but we are already in a lockdown so what is new and why do I need to change?'”

My colleague Rachel Stern, editor of The Local Germany, said the flaky way that restrictions are put in place and then taken away adds to the confusion.

She said: “As time goes on, the term ‘lockdown’ seems to be losing its seriousness for Germans.

“Measures are put in place, only to be quickly repealed following criticism, or in some case lawsuits. In many states, night-time curfews were quickly overturned, and the ’15 kilometre rule’ – which was about how far Germans living in coronavirus hotspots could travel – barely lasted a couple of weeks.”

A half-arsed lockdown

So if we haven’t had a proper lockdown what have we had for the last six months? In my opinion, it’s been a long-drawn out, half-arsed (as we’d say in Scotland) kind-of-lockdown. 

And it’s been excruciating, for every single person I’ve spoken to. We may be able to go outside often and meet up with a small number of people, but these restrictions have been a nightmare. Life is far from normal.

Yet I am very thankful for the little freedoms we have when I think of some other places.

I do wonder, though, what difference it would have made for Germany to have brought in a real, tough lockdown way back at the beginning of the second wave or at least in December during the peak.

Instead there’s been back-and-forth on various rules, talks of an Easter lockdown before a U-turn, mixed messages and people travelling. Meanwhile, the B.1.1.7 Covid variant has wreaked havoc.

On Friday German Health Minister Jens Spahn and medical experts pleaded for a lockdown, saying the health system is is on the brink of becoming overwhelmed.

But if an actual lockdown is proposed – or at least much stronger measures – will people in Germany be on board with it?

Member comments

  1. A very good Article, & spot-on. You can’t “advise” people to not do certain things, because people will always find an excuse to ignore the advice as they see fit.

  2. Yep, what would have fixed the problem would be needing a piece of paper filled out to leave the house like a prep school juvenile….Talk about Big State overreach. It hasn´t worked any better in France doing just that.
    Lock down is a prison term. It means that all cells will be locked down and no exercise yard privileges will be given while the authorities search the cells. No wonder, it was a stupid term to use in the first place. The problem here is that the authorities here don´t seem to know what to do. Just pronounce and fudge the policy while blaming beach/park go-ers and vaccine manufacturers wherever possible.

  3. “All this is absolutely rubbish, and it has been difficult for everyone.”

    A so-called lockdown is not – and never been! – a bad idea…

    However, we all know people who have flouted the social distancing and mask wearing rules.
    (Anyone with common sense must appreciate that following these simple guidelines protects us?)

    It is still confusing for many of us that some parts of society are forced to stop their business/work, but so many selfish individuals – with a secure monthly salary! – are continuing life (partying, catching up with numerous friends/family, not social distancing etc.).

    The government is to blame for the slow vaccine rollout. But the the disgusting attitude of the majority are prolonging this misery through their selfish behaviour.

  4. It seems as if the production of vaccines is so lackluster and not taken seriously. Get people vaccinated and make it a national priority.

  5. This piece would be a lot more helpful if it differentiated between measures that limit indoor activities (which actually drive infections); and those that limit outdoor activities (which don’t). The fact that you have people gathering indoors while police prevent outdoor meetups is Kafkaesque, and journalists should do their part in exposing this absurdity.

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For members


Schuldenbremse: What is Germany’s debt brake and how does it affect residents?

Nothing sums up Germany's cautious relationship with money quite as well as the debt brake - but this little clause in the constitution has recently caused no end of chaos. Here's what you need to know about the so-called 'Schuldenbremse'.

Schuldenbremse: What is Germany's debt brake and how does it affect residents?

What is the debt brake and why did Germany introduce it?

Known as the Schuldenbremse in German, the debt brake is a cap on government borrowing that’s enshrined in Germany’s constitution. It states that the federal government can only take on a certain amount of new debt in each fiscal year.

This is capped at 0.35 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – the amount of money the country produces each year in goods and services. Though GDP varies from year to year, this generally gives the government enough wiggle room to borrow around €9 billion annually.

When it comes to spending on a regional level – i.e. by state governments in Germany – the rules are even stricter. States aren’t allowed to borrow any money to fund their plans and must therefore create balanced budgets that finance spending exclusively through tax income and money from the central government.

But why exactly has Germany decided to tie itself to such strict rules on spending? Well, there are quite a few answers to that. 

Back in 2009, the Grand Coalition of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD), led by Angela Merkel, decided to bring the debt brake into law. At the time, the global economy was struggling to deal with the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, and Germany was racking up a huge deficit. 

The idea was to bring borrowing back under control as soon as possible and prevent leaving billions of euros in debt for future generations to pay off. It also paid homage to the main edicts of neo-liberalism, creating a streamlined state with little room for generous investments or high social welfare payments. 

Thanks to the ongoing effects of the financial crisis, the debt break only came into force seven years after it was put in the constitution. This means that since 2016, the federal governments have been tied to 0.35 percent cap on borrowing.

That said, there are a few exceptions to the Schuldenbremse: in periods of national emergency, such as natural disasters or pandemics, the government is allowed to put the debt brake to one side. That’s exactly what happened during the Covid pandemic in the years 2020 to 2022, and now it appears it will be put aside for the fourth year in a row. In other words, it has been sidelined for exactly half of the time it has been in place.

READ ALSO: Germany to seek debt rule suspension for 2023

Why has the debt brake been in the news recently?

The debt brake was put in the spotlight in early November when Germany’s Constitutional Court declared tens of billions of earmarked government spending to be ‘unconstitutional’.

The case related to €60 billion of borrowing that was originally intended for tackling the Covid crisis but had later been diverted towards a fund for fighting climate change known as the Climate and Transformation Fund.

In normal cases, moving unspent money around wouldn’t be a problem – but in this case, the specific rules around the debt brake came into play. Utilising the exceptions in the debt brake, the €60 billion was borrowed for the purpose of stabilising the economy during the pandemic – and as such it was only supposed to go towards tackling that emergency.

Wind turbines in Germany

Wind turbines in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christian Charisius

Beyond this amount, which already represents a huge chunk of the national budget, the court decision also invalidated the Economic Stabilisation Fund (WSF). This fund was also originally set up during the Covid crisis and later repurposed as Olaf Scholz’s ‘Doppelwumms’: a €200 billion pot that paid for the energy price breaks and other relief measures in the wake of the Ukraine war. 


Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) announced that the debt brake would be set aside for one more year to allow the government to meet its financial commitments for 2023. However, the budget for next year – and how the significant gaps in funding will be filled – still remain unclear.

The crisis has sparked a major debate among politicians about whether the debt brake is still fit for purpose. 

What do critics of the debt brake say? 

As you might expect, the tight controls on spending aren’t popular with everyone – especially those on the left on the political spectrum. 

Proponents of the debt brake say we should lower the deficit to avoid lumbering future generations with unmanageable debts, but critics of the mechanism make the opposite argument. They say that straightjacketing spending will actually put a strain on future generations as the government will be unable to invest in modern infrastructure and could therefore be hindering growth.

If borrowing is slashed too much and tax revenues don’t increase, projects like the green transformation, upgrading public transport and pushing ahead with digitalisation will inevitably be put on the backburner. The government will be forced to prioritise its urgent day to day spending in the present rather than trying to invest in the future – and it could also be forced to cut vital public services.

Deutsche Bahn train

Deutsche Bahn staff give the sign for an ICE high speed train to leave the main railway station in Stuttgart, southern Germany, on August 11, 2021. Photo by THOMAS KIENZLE / AFP

Other critics argue that the debt brake was appropriate at the time when it was introduced but that times have changed and governments require more flexibility. 

In the early to mid-2000s, Germany was riding high on a booming manufacturing and exports sector fuelled by cheap Russian gas, and had made little attempt to invest in renewable energy. Now, however, with Germany transitioning away from cheap Russian gas while trying to slash the country’s carbon emissions, Germany is faced with numerous expensive challenges at a time when the economy is especially weak – meaning borrowing more or raising more taxes feel like an inevitability. 

READ ALSO: ‘2024 a turning point’: When will Germany’s rail network run on time?

Could the debt brake be reformed in the future?

That’s certainly an idea that’s come from multiple camps – not least Economics Minister Robert Habeck of the Green Party. Speaking at the recent Green Party Conference, Habeck slammed the current rules on borrowing, stating: “With the debt brake as it is, we have voluntarily tied our hands behind our backs and are going into a boxing match.”

According to Habeck, the debt brake should be reformed according to the “green golden rule” to allow borrowing for investments rather than everyday spending. This is an idea that has also been put forward by economists.

Saskia Esken, the co-leader of the SPD, has also spoken out in favour of a reform of the debt brake to avoid putting a drag on growth in the future. 

However, the likelihood of this happening seems low at the moment, even if Greens and SPD politicians – and some members of the CDU – are in favour of it. 

That’s because it takes a two-thirds majority in the Bundestag to change any aspect of the Grundgesetz, or constitution – a much higher bar than the simple majority needed to change a law.

The FDP, who are in the coalition alongside the Greens and SPD, are also fiercely opposed to any reform of the debt brake and want to rein in government spending instead. 

Christian Lindner

German Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) speaks in the Bundestag. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

Messing with this fiscal rule could also prove unpopular: a recent poll found that 61 percent on Germans were opposed to any reform of the debt brake, as opposed to 35 percent who were in favour of it, and 4 percent who didn’t know. 

It means that in the medium term at least, the government may have to take a scalpel to its previous spending plans, cutting spending on investment projects, public services like healthcare and transport and social welfare such as child and unemployment benefits. Or it may find a way to raise some taxes without upsetting the FDP. 

READ ALSO: How Germany’s budget crisis could affect you