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ANALYSIS: Is Hamburg proof that an ’emergency brake’ can get Covid-19 cases down?

The coronavirus ‘emergency brake’ is set to be mandatory across Germany soon. But Hamburg has already had tougher Covid measures in place for weeks, including a curfew - and it appears to be working.

ANALYSIS: Is Hamburg proof that an 'emergency brake' can get Covid-19 cases down?
People sitting outside in Hamburg on April 12th. Photo: DPA

Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states agreed during their Covid meeting in March to bring in tougher protective measures to regions where Covid-19 infections go up – this was called the ’emergency brake’ mechanism, aimed at slowing down the spread.

However, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, many states opted to go their own way, prompting the federal government to change the law to force states to put in place stronger rules if coronavirus infections go up.

READ ALSO: Germany scrambles to pass national coronavirus law

One state that has followed the ’emergency brake’ rule more than others is Hamburg.

What happened in Hamburg?

When the Hanseatic city exceeded the threshold of 100 Covid-19 infections per 100,000 residents for three days in a row in mid-March, mayor Peter Tschentscher (Social Democrats) reversed opening steps.

For several weeks now, Hamburg has been in a more restricted lockdown than other federal states, which have largely shied away from this move despite the increasing number of infections.

In Berlin, for example, shops have been allowed to stay open for people with a negative rapid Covid-19 test result.

These are the emergency brake rules that currently apply in Hamburg:

  • Non-essential shops are closed – some were only open a few days before the tougher shutdown came in. For a month now, only click and collect (ordering online and picking up in the shop) has been allowed
  • Private get-togethers with friends, relatives and acquaintances are possible for your own household with one other person from another household. Children up to 14 are not included. People are encouraged to cut socialising down to a minimum
  • A night-time curfew between 9pm and 5am was brought in at the beginning of April. A curfew had never happened before in Hamburg during the coronavirus crisis

READ MORE: Hamburg to introduce curfew amid rising Covid-19 cases

Have the restrictions paid off? A look at the data shows that Hamburg has been slowing down the spread of the virus – and curfews are likely to have played an important role, reported Spiegel in an investigation.

The number of new infections per 100,000 residents in the past seven days has been falling in Hamburg since last Wednesday. The incidence value is now 112.8 as of Wednesday April 21st, Robert Koch Institute (RKI) figures show, compared to 140.9 just over a week ago.

Just before the curfew came into force, the 7-day incidence stood at around 164.

The chart below by the Hamburg government shows the 7-day incidence going down recently.

Hamburg currently has the second lowest number of Covid cases per 100,000 residents in seven days out of all the German states. The top performing state is Schleswig-Holstein with a 7-day incidence of 71.9.

The average 7-day incidence across Germany stands at 160.1.

In general there’s a positive trend emerging in the northern city-state. According to Hamburg authorities, there were 227 new coronavirus cases reported on Tuesday in the city – 42 less than a week ago.

The figures show that the curfew in Hamburg is working, said senate spokesman Marcel Schweitzer at a press conference on Tuesday. “We are seeing the first success, but we are still far from the target.”

Hamburg senator Andy Grote said the city is practically empty after 9pm and police had reported very few violations of the curfew.

But there are still concerns in the city about more people needing hospital treatment.

As of Monday April 19th, 311 coronavirus patients were being treated in Hamburg’s hospitals, according to the Social Welfare Authority, which is 30 more people than reported on Friday.

A total of 111 people are being cared for in intensive care units – an increase of 8 people. According to the RKI, 1,434 people have died in the Hanseatic city in connection with Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

Curfews controversial at the federal level

As part of negotiations on the nationwide Covid measures, curfews are a sticking point.

The Free Democrats said on Monday that too strict a curfew would result in “encroachments on fundamental rights”, and threatened the government with constitutional lawsuits.

The coalition, made up of the CDU/CSU and the SPD, then softened curfew rules in the draft of the law, saying exit restrictions wouldn’t come into place until 10pm and people could jog or walk outside alone until midnight.

There is also a dispute in science about the effect of curfews. “Danger lurks inside,” warned aerosol researchers in an open letter last week, urging leaders to focus on measures to avoid indoor social contact.

“Curfews promise more than they can keep,” criticised the researchers. “This does not prevent secret meetings indoors, but merely increases the motivation to evade government orders even more.” 

A jogger in Hamburg on April 19th. Photo: DPA

So are curfews useless? Studies in favour of curfews are highlighted in the government’s draft law, reported Spiegel. One of them comes from a research team at the University of Oxford, which said exit restrictions or curfews could curb the spread of the virus by 10 to 20 percent. 

For the analysis, the scientists looked at the influence of various measures in 17 countries, however the study has not yet been published in an independent journal. Also, at the time of the investigation, the more contagious variant B.1.1.7, which has become the dominant strain in Germany, was not yet in circulation. 

However, every country that got mutant strains of the virus under control –  such as the UK and Portugal – has at least temporarily put in place some form of curfew or ‘stay at home’ order.

Even if the risk of infection during an evening stroll in the park is low, researchers hope that the curfew will have another effect: if you are no longer allowed to go outside in the evening, you can’t meet friends in their flat for a glass of wine. And it is these private meetings that are considered the driver of outbreaks. 

Politicians must “urgently communicate” that with the B.1.1.7 variant, that originated in the UK, “any unprotected contact outside of your own household indoors is no longer acceptable”, warned mobility researcher Kai Nagel from the TU Berlin in March. 

So there are different views on whether curfews can push back the virus spread. Yet as the figures show, we can see the first signs of a rapid decline in infections in Hamburg.

In recent days other states or cities have been putting in curfews, including Cologne.

What about schools closing?

The Hanseatic city has shied away from one measure in particular: closing schools. Despite the other emergency brake measures, primary school students and graduating classes have still been allowed to attend the classroom, at least combined with distance learning.

On this point, the draft of the Infection Protection Act looks set to be tightened: schools would have to close at an incidence of 165 Covid cases per 100,000 people in seven days – previously, the draft put the incidence at 200.

READ ALSO: These are the planned changes to Germany’s ’emergency brake’ law

The German teaching union has even called for stricter rules on shutting schools.

SPD health expert Karl Lauterbach said he fears the virus is now rampant among families because many parents are too young to be at the top of the prioritisation list for vaccinations. 

“Children and young people – and their parents – are becoming the centre of the pandemic,” he wrote on Twitter. “Therefore, school closings are particularly important now. Because otherwise many families will fall seriously ill in a few weeks.”

Some other federal states are taking action and applying the brakes before the nationwide law comes into force, likely this week. Schools and daycare centres in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania have been closed since Monday, with only emergency care in place.

In Berlin, on the other hand, schools have been reopening for the seventh to ninth grades.

At least until Wednesday, when the Bundestag plans to vote on the Infection Protection Act, Germany will remain a coronavirus measures patchwork quilt.

READ ALSO: German teachers call for stricter school closures as part of country-wide Covid-measures

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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.”