Germany’s response to soaring Covid cases stymied by political row

Top public health official warns that Germany is heading for ‘a very bad Christmas’

Struggling with a runaway Covid-19 fourth wave, Germany’s push to agree new restrictions has become entangled in a bitter row between its outgoing and incoming federal governments.

As Austria announced a regional lockdown on Thursday, neighbouring Bavaria began transferring intensive care patients out of the state, including to northern Italy.

At the same time in Berlin, after an emotional Bundestag debate, a new restrictions rulebook was passed with the combined majority of Germany's likely new coalition led by the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).

It was rejected by its outgoing coalition partner, the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), with final approval hinging on a Friday vote in the upper house, the Bundesrat.


As political jousting over new measures carried on late into Thursday evening, the country's leading public health official warned that Germany was heading for "a very bad Christmas".

"There is an emergency in our country, and anyone who doesn't see that is making a very big mistake," said Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute.

Germany’s political row focuses on whether, despite record infection numbers, the new rules are more effective than the far-reaching emergency measures they replace.

The new rules have no provision for a full lockdown or blanket school closures, but they allow federal states to exclude unvaccinated people from restaurants, cultural and sports events, and require them to produce a recent negative test to use public transport.


The proposals, going before the 16 federal states in the Bundesrat on Friday, shift the focus from Covid-19 infection rates to hospitalisation rates. Based on current intensive care occupancy rates on Thursday, all but four states will move to the tighter new rules.

As Germany's acting chancellor Angela Merkel described the situation as "dramatic", leading virologists have blamed her outgoing government for a low vaccination rate of below 68 per cent, one of western Europe's lowest, and a slow booster campaign.

On Thursday, Germany’s vaccine advisory committee recommended booster shots for everyone over 18 , with states rushing to administer additional jabs for all in reactivated vaccination centres.

Berlin’s ruling mayor Michael Müller blamed Germany’s low take-up rate not on a lack of opportunity, information or vaccines but on “too much egotism and too much apathy”.

“This cannot go on forever,” he said, “where a minority dominate and risk the health of the majority.”

As politicians debated in Berlin, Bavarian hospital patients posted images on social media of queues of ambulances transferring patients to other hospitals.

Virus hotspot

In neighbouring Saxony, another virus hotspot, the state government is poised to impose a partial lockdown to close all cultural and sports events and gastronomy.

On Friday, Austrian leaders will decide whether to extend nationwide a lockdown announced from next week in the Salzburg region. For at least four weeks there only essential retail will be allowed open, while restaurants can only offer takeaway.

With uncertainty over whether to close schools, Salzburg regional leader Wilfried Haslauer said: "I hope we can come out of this strict lockdown before Christmas."

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin