BERLIN – The Germans will be forced to a strict shutdown over Christmas, after weeks of milder restrictions on public life have not slowed the spread of coronavirus, leading to a record number of new infections and deaths, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Sunday.
From Wednesday, non-essential stores, schools and hairdressers will close, and companies are encouraged to offer employees a longer holiday or let them work from home. The number of people allowed to meet in private – even over Christmas – is also being tightened further. New Year’s parties outdoors are anything but forbidden, as the sale of fireworks and public gatherings are both forbidden.
“All of this will affect the holiday, we know, but we have been forced to intervene, and that is what we are doing now,” Mrs Merkel said at a news conference announcing the measures to remain in place through 10 January.
Germany gained widespread recognition for its success in stopping the spread of the virus in the spring through an aggressive approach informed by science and carried out through contact tracking, early and aggressive testing and coordinated nationwide restrictions. But since then, the country has stumbled badly and allowed a false sense of complacency to enter. The leaders of Germany’s 16 states – who are responsible for implementing public health policy – have also been resistant to subsequent calls from Chancellor and medical experts for another blockade this autumn.
In late September, Mrs Merkel warned that if Germany did not take more radical action, the number of new infections could rise to 19,000 a day. About a month later, the chancellor’s warning came as the country experienced more than 21,500 new infections within a 24-hour period.
Instead of falling in line with other European countries – including Britain, France and Ireland – which imposed tough restrictions as the number rose in the autumn, German governors poured over how far regulations should be allowed to go. The result was a series of more flexible, softer measures nationwide – named “Lockdown light” of the German news media – which closed bars, restaurants, theaters and cinemas, but allowed small groups of people to meet and left non-essential shops, schools and hotels all open.
The goal had been to reduce social contacts by 75 percent, Ms Merkel said when they were announced in late October. But with more and more people going out for Christmas shopping and people gathering at outdoor stands to buy things like the hot mulled wine, which is a seasonal ritual, a reduction of only 40 percent was achieved, Ms Merkel said on Sunday.
“The ‘lock light’ had an effect, but it was not enough,” said Markus Söder, governor of Bavaria. “The situation is out of control.”
New infections and deaths from coronavirus have continued to rise in recent weeks with outbreaks concentrated among the elderly, especially those living in nursing homes and other care facilities. Germany registered 20,200 new infections on Sunday, an increase of more than 2,000 compared to the same day last week, according to data collected by the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s public health authority.
The country has lost 21,787 people due to the virus and the number of people being treated in intensive care is increasing, the institute said in a short published Saturday, warning that the number of new infections remained dangerously high and posed a burden to the country’s health system , if it is not brought under control.
“If we are not careful, Germany will be Europe’s problem child,” Söder said.
Last week, Germany’s National Academy of Sciences called for a “decisive and united” shutdown during the holidays. On Wednesday, Chancellor made one unusually emotional plea for Germans to listen to the scientists. The normally reserved chancellor emphasized her own education as a physicist when she urged people to reduce their social contacts before the holidays to protect older and more vulnerable members of society and their own families.
“If we have too many contacts before Christmas, and later this will be the last Christmas we celebrate with our grandparents, then we missed something,” Mrs Merkel said. “It would be good for us to really take seriously what scientists tell us.”
As Germany prepares to refrain from shutting down, some other European countries are relaxing their own rules. France has lifted the curfew and reopened non-essential shops, Ireland has allowed restaurants, shops, hotels and bars to reopen and people gather outdoors, and England is preparing to ease restrictions on private gatherings so people from as many as three households can mix from 23.-27. December.
The Germans have become more and more critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic with demonstrations against the measures grown from several hundred to several thousand ago at the end of August. Protesters include a mix of people who oppose vaccinations, angry citizens and right-wing extremists. A demonstration scheduled for Saturday in Dresden by critics of the coronavirus measures was banned by city officials. They cited public health concerns, a decision upheld by the country’s highest court.
From Wednesday, Germans will only be allowed to celebrate with people from two separate households in groups of no more than five people over the age of 14 in addition to children. From 24 to 26 December, people from up to four households plus children will be allowed to meet, even if no exceptions are made during the New Year holidays.
Businesses and freelancers affected by the restrictions will receive compensation from the government for up to 90 percent of the fixed costs, or up to 500,000 euros, equivalent to $ 605,000, the country’s finance minister, Olaf Scholz, said Sunday. “There will be a very comprehensive package of financial and temporary support,” estimated at 11 billion euros a month, he said.
Forcing stores to close their doors in the final weeks of the Christmas shopping season is a blow to many of the country’s small and medium-sized businesses, which have already struggled to recover from the tougher lockdown introduced earlier this year.
“The faster we reduce the number of new infections, the faster our economy will be able to recover,” said Peter Altmaier, Germany’s economy minister, who called the new restrictions “tough but necessary.”
Although a German company, BioNTechtogether with the American pharmaceutical company Pfizer developed the first vaccine against coronavirus to be approved in several countries, including the UK and US, Ms Merkel said Germany would wait for approval from European authorities before it would start administering injections. The European Medicines Agency has said it expects to approve the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine by 29 December.