Lockdown-easing in Germany

Submitted by martin on 3 May, 2020 - 2:48 Author: A reader in Germany

Germany's federal states have been gradually easing their pandemic "lockdowns" since some schools were partially reopened in the second half of April. So far as can be seen, daily confirmed cases, outstanding active case numbers, and daily deaths are still falling gradually.

The "lockdown" was always more liberal than in Britain. One-third of workplaces went onto "Kurzarbeit" (a scheme where the government pays wages for temporarily laid-off workers), but travel to work went down by 43% in Germany compared to around 65% in Italy, Spain, France, and the UK. German manufacturing has been running at 71% of capacity, as against 58% in the UK.

Now almost all shops are open in most of the country, though people have to wear masks. The U-Bahn in Berlin has been crowded in rush hour throughout the period. Churches have been re-opened, though with a ban on singing. Small political demonstrations are allowed.

Many restrictions remain. Visiting friends at home is still banned in most of the country. Wider reopening of schools has been postponed. But there is more traffic on the streets in the dayime.

The CDU (Germany's conservative ruling party) is in the middle of a (postponed) leadership contest, so its candidates are using the virus for electioneering – who can be toughest, or who can be most “liberal". Leaders of the CDU's sister party in Bavaria, the CSU, made it the first state to lock down, from 20 March. Now the CDU leader of North Rhine-Westphalia (Cologne, Düsseldorf, Dortmund, Essen), Armin Laschet is pressing for quicker easing.

The supposed coordination between the German states is often ineffective. Bavaria went it alone with a tough lockdown at first, forcing the hand of the other states. Now Saxony-Anhalt (Halle, Magdeburg) has now announced the unilateral abolition of some social distancing rules and is allowing small groups of people to meet. However, at the time of writing, other states and the central government hope to be able to stop that.

Pressure for easing comes most vocally from the German Football League, and also from business organisations and churches. There have been small street demonstrations against the lockdown, by "anti-vaxxers", conspiracy-theorists, and the type of people who took part in nationalistic and anti-refugee "Pegida" marches. Some are led by one-time far-leftists who - often via support for Putin, Assad, or the Iranian regime - have since become convinced mouthpieces and publicists of the far-right.

Some unions have called for pay rises for essential workers, but said nothing distinctive about slower or faster easing of the lockdown. They do not see this as their role. Their focus is on improving the amount of pay furloughed workers get, either by law or by union agreement, along with some criticism of the loosening of health, safety and working time rules.

The railway union EVG has warned that the national state-owned operator Deutsche Bahn is in financial crisis, as all long-distance trains continue to run – a political decision – despite passenger levels being down to 15% of the pre-crisis level. Local public transport operators, usually owned by local authorities, are in severe financial difficulties, but are also mostly running less services than usual.

The state is preparing to save Lufthansa from bankruptcy by taking a 25% stake, possibly with places on the board.

Surveys show only 3% for immediate reopening of football, but 43% now for all shops re-opening immediately. Most people say they support the lockdown in broad terms, but the percentage saying that they would quarantine on their own if required has gone down within the past week from 59% to 22%.

My impression is that richer people, visible by their "designer" fashion-item masks, a lot of younger people (teenagers, early-20s), and the better-off elderly, are ignoring social-distancing rules, especially since the wearing of masks has become mandatory. Masks seem to give people a sense of security (I assume false), and I suspect they have been introduced to enable the authorities to relax the restrictions.

The Robert Koch Institute, the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, and the Max Planck Society, all quasi-state scientific organisations, all publish reports on lockdown-easing, but often with differing views and not always based on evidence. Christian Drosten, head of virology at the Charité university hospital in Berlin, has been the main scientific voice in the media, but what he says varies from day to day (on masks, school closures, re-openings, on the numbers of people being tested).

There is a lot of argument about contact-tracing apps. There are plans for an EU-wide app, with the individual movements of all citizens stored on central servers. After first being against, and then being for, the German government currently says it won't be part of that, and wants to go for an app which stores and transmits data only on and between individual phones.

For obvious historical reasons data protection and the lack of data collection in the first place is a big part of the national discourse, not only as a result of the coronavirus.

But it's not at all clear that any app, whether centralised or one that only stores data on individual devices, can work adequately, or on enough phones to be effective.

There are significant shortages of PPE in Germany, too, but because there is no national health service in the British sense, only social insurance, those are seen as issues of individual hospitals or organisations within the health system and not as the fault of the governments, at national or state level.

It remains true that Germany has a much lower Covid-19 death rate (81 per million) than neighbouring countries such as Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland (670, 379, 291, 204 respectively).

It is still unclear why. It may be the case that more frail elderly people in Germany are cared for in their own homes rather than in institutions, and that may contribute, but we don't know. There are few reliable national statistics in the health sector in Germany.

• See also 'Germany: less Thatcherism, fewer deaths' in Solidarity 543

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