Germany will close most shops from Wednesday until 10 January and ban the sale of fireworks for New Year’s Eve, after Angela Merkel and state leaders agreed to impose a national lockdown in order to regain control of rising coronavirus infection rates before a “very difficult Christmas”.
Non-essential shops, excluding food retailers, pharmacies and banks but including hairdressing salons and beauty parlours, will have to close their doors from 16 December.
Schools and nurseries will also be required to offer only emergency care for essential workers for the last three days before the start of the scheduled Christmas holidays, with parents asked to look after their children at home “whenever possible”.
Under the terms of the national lockdown, which Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 federal states agreed in under an hour in an emergency summit on Sunday morning, employers are urged to either release workers for early holidays or allow for more generous remote working arrangements.
Restrictions on social gatherings will now be relaxed for a shorter period than previously announced, from 24-26 December, allowing each household to be visited by four family members above the age of 14. Those planning to spend Christmas with their families are urged to limit social contacts to “an absolute minimum” in the week ahead.
Tighter rules will come into force for New Year’s Eve, banning the customary firework displays in large public squares, the sale of pyrotechnics for personal use and the outdoor consumption of alcoholic drinks.
“There is an urgent need to take action,” Merkel said after a meeting with leaders of the country’s 16 federal states.
Germany has been in a “soft lockdown” mode since 4 November, with bars and restaurants closed, while stores and schools have remained open.
But the compromise arrangement has failed to make a significant dent in the daily coronavirus rates, with the number of new infections reported by country’s disease control agency holding at about 20,000 cases.
Germany is the only major country in Europe in which the number of people dying of or with Covid-19 has been steadily climbing since November, surpassing the peak seen in the spring.
On Sunday, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany increased by 20,200 to 1,320,716, according to data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases. The reported death toll rose by 321 to 21,787.
“We are on the path to a third wave before the second has been broken”, the newspaper Die Welt wrote in a comment piece.
“Corona has got out of control”, said the Bavarian state premier Markus Söder on Sunday, adding that the time had come for a “national effort” to overcome a “catastrophe that affects our lives like no other crisis we have seen in the last 50 years”.
Along with the eastern state of Saxony, Söder’s southern state already imposed stricter regional lockdowns, with daytime curfews to contain hotspots, last week.
A “Bergamo scenario”, where hospitals were overwhelmed with patients requiring ventilation and intensive care, Söder warned, was “closer than many people believe”.
Germany has a comparatively high number of intensive care units, with 4,267 spare ICU beds recorded on the national register on Sunday, but there are concerns about shortages in care staff.
In some hospitals, ICUs only had 5-10% spare capacity at the end of last week, intensive care doctor Uwe Janssens told broadcaster Deutsche Welle. “That’s not enough to cover the broad range of severely ill patients,” said Janssens, a member of the German Association of Critical Care and Emergency Medicine (DIVI).
A later-than-expected distribution of vaccines is adding to the headaches of Angela Merkel’s coalition government. According to several media reports on Sunday, Germany is expected to only receive 3m-4m doses of the first vaccine before the end of January, due to production problems with Pfizer/BioNTech.
The European Medicines Agency has yet to approve the vaccine developed by the Mainz-based company BioNTech. Germany is also still waiting for its share of a 300m-dose order of the vaccine developed by French company Sanofi and Britain’s GlaxoSmithKline, who announced last week that their product would not be ready for distribution until the end of 2021.