German citizens must show discipline if the country’s new coronavirus shutdown is to be lifted in time for Christmas, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned on Monday, adding that the country’s health system was at stake.
“Whether this great joint effort makes a difference in November comes down not to the rules but rather whether these rules are followed,” Merkel said in a press conference on day one of the country’s return to sweeping closures and contact restrictions.
For the next four weeks initially, restaurants and bars will be shuttered along with cinemas, theatres, museums and other cultural and recreational facilities.
Across most of the country’s 16 states, outdoor gatherings are limited to members of no more than two households, with a maximum of 10 people. In some regions, this also applies to gatherings in the home.
Tourism has essentially been banned, with German hotels closed to all but essential travellers. Federal police officers were deployed to main transit points across Berlin’s public transport network as the measures, which also include sweeping mask rules, came into force.
“Each individual has the power to turn this November into a joint success – into a turning point back towards tracking the pandemic,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin, looking ahead to what she hopes will be a “bearable” December.
“The virus punishes half-heartedness,” she added, calling on citizens to drastically reduce their social contacts.
Germany is currently recording far more new coronavirus infections daily than at the start of the pandemic in March and April, although testing has been ramped up significantly since then.
Merkel pointed to the country’s so-called seven-day incidence of 127.8 – the number of cases per 100,000 people over a one-week period – as being far too high.
The goal is to bring it down to below 50, so that local health authorities can go back to tracking all infections.
Currently, the source of infection is unclear in around 75 per cent of cases and Germany risks overwhelming its health care system within weeks if intensive-care units continue to fill up at the current rate, Merkel said.
“This is exponential growth which is leading us at increasing speed towards an acute emergency situation in our hospitals,” the chancellor said.
Germany is a world leader in terms of its intensive-care-unit capacity and so far has weathered the pandemic without any bottlenecks in hospitals.
The November shutdown is less strict than Germany’s first round of restrictions, with schools and kindergartens remaining open for example, along with most shops and hair salons.
The measures have been billed as an attempt to ensure families can get together – under certain circumstances – over the Christmas season.
“If we are all sensible in November, we can then allow ourselves more freedoms at Christmas,” Merkel said.
“I don’t think there will be big, noisy New Year’s parties,” she added.
Whether her plan to save Christmas works remains to be seen. Merkel is scheduled to meet with state premiers on November 16 – at the shutdown’s intended half-way point – in order to assess progress.
She did not rule out introducing even stricter measures at that point if necessary, nor would she be drawn on what might happen if the infection rate remains stubbornly high beyond November.
The renewed closures have led to concerns over whether businesses already struggling from the first shutdown can survive.
On top of existing financial aid, the government has pledged another tranche of up to 10 billion euros (11.6 billion dollars) in funding to cover the majority of businesses’ lost revenue during the month of November.
The Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s infectious disease body, reported 12,097 new coronavirus infections within 24 hours on Monday, bringing the total number of cases since the start of the pandemic to 545,027.
The death toll also grew by 49, to reach a total of 10,530. Monday’s figures were lower than the record-breaking numbers seen towards the end of last week, although this could be due to the fact that fewer people are tested over the weekend.