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Coronavirus: Germany to impose one-month partial lockdown

28.10.2020

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced tough new measures from Monday, November 2, in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. But will the German people be compliant?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany's state premiers announced on Wednesday a new partial lockdown to begin on Monday, November 2.

The so-called nationwide "lockdown light" is a less intense version of the measures that brought German society and economic activity to a standstill in the spring. 

Shortly after Merkel's announcement, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a new lockdown across France.

New restrictions for the next month

What is allowed

'Serious situation'

Merkel said in a press conference: "We are in a very serious situation."

"We must act, and now, to avoid an acute national health emergency."

She said the number of people in intensive care units has doubled in the past 10 days, and that in many areas it was no longer possible to track and trace infection chains. In 75% of cases, the source of infection is unknown.

 "If infections continue at this rate, we will be at the limits of the capacities of our health system," she said.

"That is why this is a difficult day today, also for political decision-makers, I want to say this explicitly because we know what we are putting people through," she said.

State and federal leaders will meet again in two weeks to assess if the new measures are having enough of an effect, and recalibrate if needed.

Business support

Merkel promised that firms hit by the new measures would receive economic support. Companies with up to 50 employees and the self-employed will receive 75% of their income in support.

"We will compensate affected companies, institutions and clubs," she said.

According to media reports, a total of €10 billion ($11.8 billion) has been earmarked for support.

Larger companies will be reliant on EU rules for assistance and this will vary from company to company.

Emergency loans will be made available for self-employed workers such as artists and stage hands, while small businesses with less than 10 employees will gain access to very cheap loans.

Public mood

Until now, Merkel's government has enjoyed high levels of support for the measures put in place to tackle the pandemic and Germany has fared relatively well compared to many of its European neighbors.

But public mood has been shifting and criticism among the population of government-ordained measures is on the rise.

Wednesday saw Germany's highest rate of new daily infections yet — over 14,000 — and the latest figures show that only around 33%* of Germany's intensive care beds are still available. 

 

Mounting dissatisfaction 

Compared to the beginning of October, 5% more people now say that the measures currently in place do not go far enough (32% in total), according to the statistics agency Infratest. At the same time, the number of people for whom the measures go too far increased by 4% to 15% of people in total. A slim majority (51%) feel that the current measures are sufficient, but this number is 8% less than at the start of October. 

Some of those who vehemently oppose further restrictions are fearful of the economic impact. Many Berlin restaurant owners, for example, have said they would probably have to close down their business if faced with a second lockdown. They have already seen losses after the closure in the spring, followed by rules that forced them to adhere to social distancing regulations and then the curfew imposed last month.

Several news outlets also reported that financing the new measures would push the amount of debt Germany was in for 2021 well over €100 billion ($117 billion). Finance Minister Olaf Scholz had planned a sum of €96 billion to help businesses ride out the pandemic next year, but the new aid package could cost €10 billion more.

The opposition pro-business liberal Free Democrats have spoken out against another shutdown of the hospitality sector. "I believe it is unnecessary and unconstitutional," party leader Christian Lindner wrote on Twitter before Wednesday's meeting. 

'Lockdown fantasies' 

For many in Germany, the question of individual freedom is at least as important as a thriving economy. Leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which is the largest opposition party in the German federal parliament, have been among those the most widely critical of further restrictions. 

"No measures — including lockdowns — have had a demonstrable influence on the infection rate, but the lockdown fantasies of government politicians are becoming increasingly absurd," the AfD parliamentary leader Alexander Gauland said in a statement on Tuesday. 

Read more: False alarm? Confusion about EU COVID-19 threat levels

Germany has seen anti-lockdown protests in recent months, with some groups protesting under the banner of "Querdenker" — people who "think outside the box." A demonstration in Berlin at the weekend coincided with an arson attack on the Robert Koch Institute, Germany's public health agency — although no suspects have yet been identified. 

Protesters espousing conspiracy theories and far-right groups have joined the demonstrations, drawing criticism and ridicule from the left and more liberal quarters. But surveys show that there is a growing number of people critical of restrictions, who believe that fighting the virus should be a question of personal responsibility. The most recent survey shows that a narrow majority of Germans agree with this view: 54% compared to 43% who say authorities should put restrictions in place. 

Berlin vs. the states 

As Germany is governed by a federal system, one of the key questions during the pandemic response has been how much of a say the central government in Berlin should have, as health policy is the mandate of the 16 states. This has led to a "patchwork" of regulations across the country, with travel bans or curfews in some places and no restrictions in others. The new lockdown measures are designed to counter this.

The most recent survey shows over two thirds (68%) of people want regulations to be unified across the 16 states. Additionally, 78% said they wanted the states to "work more closely together" in pandemic response. 

There have been calls for the parliaments at federal and state levels to be involved in decision-making, with MPs from all political parties speaking out against decision-making behind closed doors.

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A European role model? 

Despite the increasing infection rates, Germany still stands on good ground compared to other European countries. Even with the high daily infection figures seen in late October, in terms of cases per 100,000 inhabitants Germany remains well below rates in Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Belgium. 

France and the UK are among the countries that have introduced partial or localized lockdowns in recent weeks in an effort to curb the number of cases. Germany is hoping to take action before cases reach the rates seen there, in two of the worst-affected nations in the world. 

Germany's relatively strong acceptance of measures up until now may have been key in the low infection and death rates. But surveys show that 50% of Germans believe that efforts by police and authorities to enforce the restrictions have not gone far enough. 

The challenge is to make sure the German people accept the new measures — and to enforce them. Relying on goodwill and compliance, as the chancellor called for in her most recent video podcast, may not go far enough. 

*This article previously stated 25%. It has been amended based more precise calculations.

Elliot Douglas, Alistair Walsh