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Coronavirus: Angela Merkel and state leaders debate imposing lockdown

Germany’s top virologists and politicians are clear: further measures are needed to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. But what is the mood among German people — and will they compliantly return to lockdown?

As Germany sees the number of coronavirus cases rapidly increasing day by day, Chancellor Angela Merkel gathered the leaders of the 16 states on Wednesday for crisis talks to decide whether or not to impose a lockdown.

Wednesday saw Germany’s highest rate of new daily infections yet — over 14,000 — and the latest figures show that only around 25% of Germany’s intensive care beds are still available. 

The German press reported ahead of the meeting that Merkel wants a “lockdown light” — a less intense version of the measures that brought German society and economic activity to a standstill in the spring.

This would see schools and kindergartens remain open, but restaurants, bars and some shops close for at least a month. Large events would also once more be canceled and unnecessary travel discouraged. 

Until now, Merkel’s government has enjoyed high levels of support for the measures put in place to tackle the pandemic and Germany has fared relatively well compared to many of its European neighbors. But ahead of the decision, public mood is shifting and criticism among the population of government-ordained measures is on the rise.

Mounting dissatisfaction 

Compared to the beginning of October, 5% more people now say that the measures currently in place do not go far enough (32% in total), according to the statistics agency Infratest.

At the same time, the number of people for whom the measures go too far increased by 4% to 15% of people in total. A slim majority (51%) feel that the current measures are sufficient, but this number is 8% less than at the start of October. 

Some of those who vehemently oppose further restrictions are fearful of the economic impact. Many Berlin restaurant-owners, for example, have said they would probably have to close down their business if faced with a second lockdown.

They have already seen losses after the closure in the spring, followed by rules that forced them to adhere to social distancing regulations and then the curfew imposed last month.

The opposition pro-business liberal Free Democrats have spoken out against another shutdown of the hospitality sector. “I believe it is unnecessary and unconstitutional,” party leader Christian Lindner wrote on Twitter before Wednesday’s meeting.

‘Lockdown fantasies’ 

For many in Germany, the question of individual freedom is at least as important as a thriving economy. The far-right party Alternative for Germany, who are the largest opposition party in the German federal parliament, have been among those the most widely critical of further restrictions. 

“No measures — including lockdowns — have had a demonstrable influence on the infection rate, but the lockdown fantasies of government politicians are becoming increasingly absurd,” their parliamentary leader Alexander Gauland said in a statement on Tuesday. 

Germany has seen anti-lockdown protests in recent months, with some groups protesting under the banner of “Querdenker” — people who “think outside the box.” A demonstration in Berlin at the weekend coincided with an arson attack on the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s public health agency — although no suspects have yet been identified. 

Protesters espousing conspiracy theories and far-right groups have joined the demonstrations, drawing criticism and ridicule from the left and more liberal quarters. But surveys show that there is a growing number of people critical of restrictions, who believe that fighting the virus should be a question of personal responsibility.

The most recent survey shows that a narrow majority of Germans agree with this view: 54% compared to 43% who say authorities should put restrictions in place. 

Berlin vs. the states 

As Germany is a federal country, one of the key questions during the pandemic response has been how much of a say the central government in Berlin should have, as health policy is the mandate of the 16 states. This has led to a “patchwork” of regulations across the country, with travel bans or curfews in some places and no restrictions in others.

The most recent survey shows over two thirds (68%) of people want regulations to be unified across the 16 states. Additionally, 78% said they wanted the states to “work more closely together” in pandemic response. 

There have been calls for the parliaments at federal and state levels to be involved in decision making, with MPs from all political parties speaking out against decision-making behind closed doors.

A European role model? 

Despite the increasing infection rates, Germany still stands on good ground compared to other European countries. Even with the high daily infection figures seen in late October, in terms of cases per 100,000 inhabitants Germany remains well below rates in Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and Belgium. 

France and the UK are among the countries that have introduced partial or localized lockdowns in recent weeks in an effort to curb the number of cases. Germany is hoping to take action before cases reach the rates seen there, in two of the worst-affected nations in the world. 

Germany’s relatively strong acceptance of measures up until now may have been key in the low infection and death rates. But surveys show that 50% of Germans believe that efforts by police and authorities to enforce the restrictions have not gone far enough. 

The challenge is not to agree on measures that will not only be accepted by the German people but are also enforceable. Relying on goodwill and compliance, as the chancellor called for in her most recent video podcast, may not go far enough.