When will Germany decide on new nationwide Covid-19 restrictions?

As the coronavirus emergency in Germany worsens, the government is set to seize power from states to implement measures - but regions are already getting tougher with extra Covid rules.

When will Germany decide on new nationwide Covid-19 restrictions?
People walking at the beach in Warnemünde, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania on Saturday. Photo: DPA

What’s happening anyway?

As The Local has been reporting, the German government, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, is trying to bring in controversial changes to its national infections control law.

The aim is to allow for more centralised power to introduce tougher measures nationwide, which would force rebel states to follow the rules.

Wasn’t this decided last week?

Yes and no. As with most things in Germany, the process is quite drawn out. So the government agreed on changes to the law last Tuesday, and the first draft was debated in the Bundestag on Friday last week.

On Monday Merkel’s conservatives (the Christian Democrats or the CDU and the Bavarian Christian Social Union CSU) plus the Social Democrat (SPD) parliamentary groups will discuss any changes to the Infection Protection Act draft.

The law is to be voted on in the Bundestag on Wednesday.

At the weekend coalition factions were still in negotiations about final changes.

READ ALSO: When could Germany’s nationwide ’emergency brake’ Covid measures come into force?

But isn’t Germany in some kind of lockdown already?

Yes, there are lockdown measures in place, including contact restrictions. Germany has been in a state of shutdown since November, with things like indoor dining, bars and leisure plus culture facilities all closed.

However, the country did start to reopen public life (for example hairdressers opened everywhere on March 1st) earlier this year.

The government and states then agreed on an “emergency brake” or Notbremse mechanism that reverses opening steps when the Covid infections go up.

But what we’ve seen in recent weeks is that many states have gone their own way and not introduced the strict emergency brake, angering Chancellor Merkel.

So what’s the aim of this change to the law?

The idea is to make the emergency brake mandatory for states to follow. It would see badly-hit coronavirus regions be forced to implement restrictions.

If the 7-day incidence in a city or a district rises above 100 cases per 100,000 inhabitants for three days in a row, most shops would have to close, and a curfew would apply between 9pm and 5am.

How bad is the situation in Germany?

On Monday April 19th, Germany reported 11,437 new coronavirus infections within 24 hours and 92 deaths. The number of cases per 100,000 residents in seven days stood at 165.3.

However, numbers are often lower after the weekend due to delays in reporting and fewer tests. Last week, the RKI warned that new cases could approach a record level in April if no action is taken.

READ ALSO: ‘No way around it’: Merkel defends Germany’s nationwide coronavirus measures

Intensive care units are also reaching critical levels in some places.

So is everyone for this move?

There has been a lot of criticism, especially from the opposition Free Democrats (FDP), who raised the prospect of a constitutional lawsuit if the draft is not changed.

Among the more controversial parts of the law is the curfew in hotspots and the plan for governments to force schools – usually strictly within the remit of the federal states – to revert to virtual teaching if the 7-day incidence rate exceeds 200 cases per 100,000 people.

FDP Secretary General Volker Wissing said there needs to be big changes to the draft.

“We want to get a better law,” he told the newspapers of the Neue Berliner Redaktionsgesellschaft on Monday.

For this to happen, it would have to be subject to approval in the Bundesrat (which represents the 16 states), and respect the sovereign rights of the states in educational matters, he said.

Meanwhile, “inadmissible encroachments on fundamental rights” such as curfews should be removed, said Wissing.

Yet some politicians think the measures should be even tougher.

Hamburg mayor Peter Tschentscher (SPD) advocated restricting freedom of assembly, which would impact the right to demonstrations. They are allowed at the moment as long as Covid protection measures are followed. 

He told Bild newspaper: “It would make sense if the federal government explicitly included in the Infection Protection Act that the right of assembly can be restricted here, as well as other basic rights.”

Even if freedom of assembly is a valuable asset that is worth protecting, he said, having to break up large-scale anti-Covid measures protests, such as those in Dresden and Leipzig “overtax the police”.

READ ALSO: German government agrees on law for curfews and tougher measures nationwide

Aren’t some states tightening measures anyway?

Yes. Chancellor Merkel has been calling on states for weeks to bring in tougher rules given the coronavirus situation in Germany, and some states which haven’t done this so far are now taking steps.

In Brandenburg, a curfew is to apply to residents from Monday between 10pm and 5am in regions where the 7-day incidence is over 100 for three days.

From 200 new Covid infections per 100,000 residents in a week, all schools are to be closed. Daycare centres in regions with an incidence of 200 are also expected to close.

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania has had tougher measures in place since midnight. Schools, daycare centres, museums, libraries and most shops are not allowed to open. Hairdressers, hardware stores, flower shops and bookshops can remain open, as can grocery stores, banks, drugstores and pharmacies. Private meetings are only allowed to take place with one person outside of your own household.

Second home owners and people with caravans or camper vans from other federal states are not allowed to visit Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

Even stricter rules apply from Monday to coronavirus hotspots in Baden-Württemberg. If the number of new infections is over 100 on three consecutive days, stricter contact rules come into force, and there are also curfews.

Museums, galleries and zoos as well as betting shops have to close, and a negative rapid test is required to visit the hairdresser. However, click and collect in non-essential shops is still allowed.

At the same time, more students are returning to schools in some states. In Berlin, for example, the seventh to ninth grades are heading back to the classroom.

Several politicians spoke out in favour of increased teaching outside instead of distance learning.

“Lessons in the open air or the further reduction of the size of the study groups must be thought through before schools are closed,” said the family policy spokesman for the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, Marcus Weinberg.

What about enforcing it?

As the debate continues over the Infection Protection Act changes, the Police Union (GdP) made it clear that police officers will not check apartments to see if people are sticking to contact restrictions without cause.

“The staff employed will enforce the conditions with a sense of proportion, but we appeal to the population to support them and to behave considerately,” deputy GdP federal chairman Dietmar Schilff told the Rheinische Post on Monday. “The police will not inspect apartments for no reason, they will not ring every door.”

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Is the pandemic over in Germany?

As much of Germany lifts - or prepares to lift - the last remaining Covid-19 measures, intensive care units say Covid-19 admissions are no longer straining the system.

Is the pandemic over in Germany?

Despite a difficult winter of respiratory illnesses, intensive care units in Germany say Covid-19 admissions have almost halved. The number of cases having to be treated in the ICU has gone down to 800 from 1,500 at the beginning of this month.

“Corona is no longer a problem in intensive care units,” Gernot Marx, Vice President of the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine, told the German Editorial Network. “A the moment, we don’t have to think every day about how to still ensure the care of patients, but how to actually run a service that can help.”

Marx said the drop has allowed them to catch up on many postponed surgeries.

The number of sick employees in hospitals is also falling, helping to relieve the pressure on personnel.

The easing pressure on hospitals correlates with the assessment of prominent virologist and head of the Virology department at Berlin’s Charite – Christian Drosten – who said in December that the pandemic was close to ending, with the winter wave being an endemic one.

German federal and state governments are now in the midst of lifting the last of the country’s pandemic-related restrictions. Free Covid-19 antigen tests for most people, with exceptions for medical personnel, recently ended.

READ ALSO: Free Covid-19 tests end in Germany

Six federal states – Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Hessen, Thuringia, Lower Saxony, and Schleswig-Holstein – have ended mandatory isolation periods for people who test positive for Covid-19.

Bavaria, Saxony-Anhalt, and Schleswig-Holstein have ended the requirement to wear FFP2 masks on public transport, while Berlin, Brandenburg, Saxony, Thuringia, and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania will follow suit on February 2nd.

At that time, the federal government will also drop its requirement for masks to be worn on long-distance trains. Labour Minister Hubertus Heil says that’s when he also intends to exempt workplaces – apart from medical locations – from a mask requirement.

READ ALSO: Germany to drop mask mandate in trains and buses from February 2nd

Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg will also end the requirement for patients to wear a mask in doctor’s offices. That’s a requirement that, so far, will stay in place everywhere else. Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has also said that he thinks this requirement should remain. 

But some public health insurers and general practitioners are calling for a nationwide end to the obligation for wearing masks in doctor’s offices.

“The pandemic situation is over,” National Association of Statutory Health Physicians (KBV) Chair Andreas Gassen told the RND network. “High-risk patients aren’t treated in all practices. It should generally be left up to medical colleagues to decide whether they want to require masks in their practices.”