Home >News >World >Merkel orders Germany into hard lockdown as infections swell

Germany will enter a hard lockdown from Wednesday, with non-essential stores shuttered, employers urged to close workplaces and school children encouraged to remain at home.

The tighter restrictions -- including a ban on gatherings over the New Year -- will last until at least Jan. 10 after a looser shutdown failed to halt a surge in daily coronavirus infections and deaths. Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed on the measures with the heads of Germany’s 16 states in talks Sunday and warned of rising pressure on the nation’s health system.

“There is an urgent need for action," Merkel told a news conference. “We have seen rising infections and exponential growth in recent days and that means that we have to grieve many dead."

After comfortably handling the initial wave of the pandemic, the country is lagging behind many of its neighbours, and officials came under increasing pressure to act days before Christmas. Infections and fatalities rose by record amounts on Friday, and almost 22,000 have died from the disease, out of a total of 1.3 million cases.

“The coronavirus is out of control, so we don’t want to do things piecemeal but act decisively," Bavaria Premier Markus Soeder said alongside Merkel, describing the pandemic as a “catastrophe" and calling for a national effort to tackle it. “If we’re not careful, Germany will quickly become the problem child of Europe," he warned.

Germany’s stumbles in dealing with the disease are linked to its complex and at times dysfunctional federal system, Merkel’s pursuit of open borders and political power plays ahead of next year’s national election. It puts Europe’s largest economy at risk of another blow to consumer and business confidence after the spring lockdown triggered a collapse in activity.

A group of retailers wrote to Merkel warning of “disastrous consequences" if stores are closed during the key shopping month of December, Bild newspaper reported Sunday. “You are also irrevocably sealing the insolvency of thousands of retailers and putting millions into unemployment," Bild quoted the letter as saying.

Germany’s soft shutdown from early November -- which closed bars, gyms and theaters but allowed most of the economy to continue operating -- failed to bring the virus back under control, putting hospitals under strain and complicating contact tracing.

Officials have said the seven-day incidence needs to come down to 50 per 100,000 and stay there. The measure was at a record 169 on Sunday, according to the RKI public health institute, while the number of coronavirus patients in intensive care rose to 4,527, also the highest since the start of the outbreak.

“The next three months will easily be the toughest of the whole pandemic," Karl Lauterbach, a health policy spokesman from the ruling Social Democrats, told Die Welt newspaper on Sunday. Germany will likely be able to vaccinate around 5 million people in the first quarter of 2021, which won’t have much impact on the virus, he added.

The government provided emergency relief for businesses in November and December worth around 15 billion euros ($18.2 billion) a month. However, officials have warned that such assistance cannot continue into 2021, with Germany already taking on tens of billions of euros of new debt this year and next.

A less generous program that compensates for fixed costs such as heating and rent has been extended until the end of June and expanded. Finance Minister Olaf Scholz estimated Sunday it will cost the federal government around 11 billion euros per month during a hard lockdown.

In another effort to help companies hurt by the curbs, the government will allow firms with too much debt to delay insolvency until after the end of January, Handelsblatt newspaper reported Sunday, citing a coalition lawmaker.

Merkel, who is in the final year of her 16-year tenure as chancellor, effectively declared mission accomplished in the spring when she vowed to avoid reimposing a national lockdown -- which was already less harsh than in countries such as Italy and Spain.

That created the feeling that the country could get away with looser restrictions that would do less damage to the economy. It also prompted a false sense of security during the summer months, in which Germany allowed people to travel freely throughout Europe while failing to properly prepare for the second wave by ramping up testing capacities faster, protecting the elderly and beefing up online-learning capabilities.

When it became clear in mid-November that the infection rate was not coming down, Germany’s federalist system -- in which states control health policy and schools -- became a major stumbling bloc for a clear response. Merkel at the time pushed for much stricter curbs. But many regional state leaders resisted, afraid of alienating voters with further restrictions and angry about the way Merkel tried to force them into a decision.

Instead of brightening the mood before the holidays by loosening curbs, Germans face the psychological blow of tighter restrictions as 2020 draws to a close and before a vaccine is rolled out, likely starting early next year.

Still, the gloom is relative. Germany’s outbreak never neared the highs in countries like France, the U.K. and Spain, and contagion rates remain less severe than in more than half of Europe.

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said Sunday’s decisions are “tough but necessary."

“The faster we bring the infection numbers down, the quicker things will be looking up again for our economy," he said in an emailed statement.

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