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15 December 2020updated 16 Dec 2020 7:47am

Why Germany’s long-admired Covid-19 response is in trouble

The country’s new strict lockdown reflects avoidable failures in tackling the virus’s second wave.  

By Jeremy Cliffe

For much of 2020, Germany’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been considered a relative success story, even an international model. The country locked down relatively promptly in March, rules were well communicated, high levels of hospital capacity kept intensive care units from being overwhelmed and, thanks to its decentralised network of some 400 Gesundheitsämter, or local health authorities, the country rolled out test and trace mechanisms more successfully than many of its European counterparts. The result was fewer deaths: some 9,000 by the start of July, compared with about 30,000 in France, 35,000 in Italy and 40,000 in the UK (all countries with smaller populations). Others have studied Germany’s response for lessons to learn.

But that was then. Like most other European countries, Germany introduced new restrictions in the autumn to combat a second wave of the virus. And whereas in France, the UK, Spain and Italy that second wave has fallen from its peak, in Germany numbers continue to rise. New infections hit a record high of 29,875 on Friday (11 December), far above the one-day spring peak of under 7,000. Intensive care units in hospitals in some parts of the country are close to full. The total number of deaths has more than doubled since the start of November to 22,634. Infection rates in all but a handful of local government districts are above the 50 per 100,000 level beyond which the vaunted Gesundheitsämter are said to be unable to keep track of infection chains. For the first time since the pandemic hit Germany in the spring, it seems out of control.

[see also: How Sweden is being forced to abandon its failing Covid-19 strategy]

At a crisis meeting between Angela Merkel and the heads of Germany’s 16 federal states on Sunday it was agreed that the country should begin a hard lockdown. “There is an urgent need for action,” said the chancellor afterwards. The new nationwide measures come into effect tomorrow (Wednesday), and will see all non-essential shops and services, as well as most school and kindergarten places, close until at least 10 January. Some heavily affected states, like Bavaria and Saxony, have introduced night-time curfews.

So what went wrong? How did the admired German model go so badly astray?

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One possibility is that the country’s earlier success has bred complacency among its citizens. Past weeks have brought successive news reports of illegal gatherings in public spaces and private homes. The anti-mask, anti-lockdown movement is particularly vocal in Germany. Christmas markets are absent but in many cities shopkeepers have set up Glühwein (mulled wine) stands on street corners where groups of people cluster. In an unusually forceful speech to the Bundestag last week urging greater caution, Merkel singled out such breaches of the spirit of the measures: “As hard as this is, and I know how much love goes into setting up mulled wine stalls, setting up waffle bakeries, it is not compatible [with the rules].”

Yet a more convincing explanation for the rising infection numbers is a trio of errors by federal and regional authorities.

First, the autumn lockdown was almost certainly too mild. In September, Merkel warned that a second wave could see the daily new infection rate reach over 19,000 by Christmas; a prediction dismissed by some politicians and commentators as alarmist. When the restrictions came, on 2 November, in what was dubbed a “lockdown-light”, they were more targeted and limited than they had been in the spring: restaurants, bars, gyms and entertainment venues shut but shops and schools remained open and gatherings of up to ten people were still allowed. So Germans have kept moving around, shopping and mingling – and the desired circuit-breaker effect has not been achieved. According to the Robert Koch Institute last week, social contacts are down just 40 per cent on the norm, where a reduction of 60 per cent is needed.

Second, authorities were too slow to agree that the rules needed tightening further. By 5 November, only three days into the lockdown-light, Germany exceeded the 19,000 daily infections Merkel had predicted “by Christmas”. Two weeks later the numbers were stabilising, but too slowly. A video summit on 16 November saw some state heads clash with Merkel over her calls for new rules on social gatherings, class sizes and mask use in schools. Preposterously, given subsequent events, the meeting was overshadowed by a spat over whether the chancellery had circulated its proposals paper too late on the preceding evening. Merkel would have to wait until 25 November to secure the support to announce an initial tightening. In a damning cover feature, the latest issue of Der Spiegel magazine sums it up succinctly: “November will go down in the history of the pandemic as wasted time.”

Third, expectations were poorly managed. Startling new rises in infection and death numbers over the past two weeks finally brought agreement on the new hard lockdown at the unusually concise meeting between Merkel and the state heads on Sunday. But as Der Spiegel notes, this jars with the way the initial “lockdown-light” was sold in the autumn: as a brief down-payment on a more relaxed and sociable December. In what it calls “the biggest political miscalculation of the year”, the magazine suggests that optimistic language earlier in the autumn may now be translating into lockdown fatigue. Michael Kretschmer, the minister-president of Saxony who in October had been warning against “hysteria” over a second wave, recently accepted: “We underestimated this virus – all of us did.”

Quite how damaging that has been will soon become plain. The final weeks of the year are usually a particularly convivial part of the German calendar. Crowds throng at Christmas markets, a polycentric and mobile population redistributes itself across the country to be with loved ones and the big cities ring in the New Year, with raucous firework free-for-alls that make celebrations in most other parts of Europe look tame. Now the markets are gone, singing in churches and outdoor alcohol consumption is banned, households may receive a maximum of four Christmas guests in a narrow window from 24 to 26 December and firework sales on New Year’s Eve are outlawed. Experts like Karl Lauterbach, an MP and epidemiologist who has emerged as an authoritative voice on Covid-19 restrictions, reckon that the measures may well have to be extended beyond 10 January.

Then there is one additional matter on which Germany may be losing its admired position from earlier this year: vaccine approval. Where regulators in the UK, US and Canada have already approved the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech – as it happens, a German firm – and rollout has begun in those countries and elsewhere, in Germany and other EU countries growing criticism has recently been directed at the European Medicines Agency (EMA) for scheduling its decision for 29 December. Earlier today, the EMA confirmed that it now plans to approve the vaccine on 21 December. Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn said it was “good news”. But still, it adds to the sense in the EU’s largest country that on this subject too, valuable time has been squandered.

[see also: Why the UK beat the EU to approving a Covid-19 vaccine]

A sense of perspective about Germany’s recent struggles is due. Its death toll is (for now) still substantially lower in absolute and proportional terms than in many comparator countries. A formidable network of distribution centres and other logistical arrangements is reportedly ready to start work as soon as the vaccine is approved. If – if – the country can break its second wave in the next few weeks it will still emerge with one of the better Covid-19 records among rich Western countries. But the fact that even Germany can let the numbers get out of control is a warning for others too, including those who admired its success earlier in the year. Even well-prepared countries with good pandemic-fighting capacities cannot afford to let their guard down.

[see also: To understand Germany’s successes, we must concentrate less on Angela Merkel]

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