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5 November 2021

Dispatch: As Covid-19 cases surge, is Germany heading for another lockdown?

Another lockdown, whether for the unvaccinated or for the country as a whole, would be immensely unpopular.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – Could Germany be heading towards another winter lockdown? Coronavirus cases are surging and some state leaders are warning that without action to curb the rise, the country will face another winter of harsh restrictions.

Michael Kretschmer, the leader of the eastern state of Saxony, told German radio that unless immediate action was taken to counter growing case rates, the situation would “end in a lockdown like last year”. The head of the neighbouring state of Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow, said hospitals were rapidly running out of beds because of the rise in coronavirus patients. 

For many Germans, the rhetoric coming from their leaders is uncomfortably close to what they heard last autumn, when the country was forced into a gruelling months-long lockdown. Germany is now recording its highest daily case rate since the beginning of the pandemic. On Thursday 4 November, 37,000 new cases were registered in the country, higher than the UK and over three times more than in neighbouring France, although Germany’s population is the largest in Europe. 

Deaths have also been climbing: they currently stand at a seven-day rolling average of over 100 per day. Vaccine coverage, at 66 per cent of the population, is lower in Germany than in other large European countries. Saxony and Thuringia are some of the least vaccinated states in the country but have some of the highest infection rates.

Officials believe the profile of those falling ill is different from previous waves. According to health minister Jens Spahn, Germany is now facing a “pandemic of the unvaccinated – and it is massive”. Spahn said the number of Germans who had been vaccinated against coronavirus was still too low, and he called for more people to receive booster shots. 

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Proof of vaccination, recovery or a recent negative test is required by some German states for entry to venues such as nightclubs and restaurants, although verification is patchy. Many venues do not scan QR codes proving vaccination. Instead, they inspect them manually, making it easy to fake vaccination status for entry. 

If cases continue to climb, more restrictions may be coming, although they could be targeted solely at the unvaccinated. More stringent verification of vaccination status at venues would be an obvious target for policymakers. They might also consider more widespread vaccine mandates, which are more limited in Germany than in some other European countries. Polls show a majority of the population favour mandatory vaccination of all adults. 

Another option could be to reintroduce free testing, abolished in October to incentivise vaccination. A poll for the health ministry showed that two-thirds of those who remain unvaccinated had no intention of getting jabbed in the coming months. Reinstating free testing could help diagnose positive cases and stop them spreading, short of being able to convince more people to get vaccinated. 

Rising case rates mean that the likely incoming chancellor, Olaf Scholz, will probably face an immediate and serious challenge at home if, as expected, negotiations between the Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats produce an agreement for a coalition government. 

Another lockdown, whether solely for the unvaccinated or for the country as a whole, would be immensely unpopular and could face lower compliance than during previous waves.

[See also: Will Germany have a new government by Christmas?]

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