Germany is paving the way for the introduction of tighter restrictions on people who have so far chosen not to be vaccinated against Covid-19, in an effort to control its highest infection levels since the pandemic began.
On Tuesday the country’s disease control agency, the Robert Koch Institute, recorded a seven-day incidence rate of 312 cases per 100,000 people, with several areas at more than 1,000. A year ago, before the vaccine was introduced, the rate stood at 139. There were 265 deaths reported on Tuesday, much fewer than the pre-vaccine peak.
With the country in political limbo, the old government of Angela Merkel operating in a caretaker capacity until a new three-way coalition takes the reins next month, management of the pandemic appears to have lost direction.
Less than 70% of the population is fully vaccinated, leaving Germany considerably behind other European countries such as Italy, Spain and Portugal.
The spread of the more infectious Delta variant, an increase in communal activity, a return to the workplace and a sluggish rollout of booster vaccines, which are recommended six months after the second jab, have been blamed for the increase in infections.
A rise in health conditions usually related to the colder months has contributed to some hospitals being on the verge of being overwhelmed. Some hospitals have stopped all but essential surgery to cope with the increase in patients.
The state of Saxony, where 85% of ICU beds are occupied by Covid patients, became the latest to introduce so-called 2G rules in all non-essential shops and facilities, meaning only people who can prove they have been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid will be allowed entry. Saxony’s social minister, Petra Köpping, said that in addition tests would be required if the incidence continued to rise to the extent that hospitals were unable to cope. 2G is a reference to the German words for vaccinated and recovered (geimpft and genesen).
North Rhine Westphalia is due to follow suit, with unvaccinated people to be excluded from entry to all non-essential facilities and events including football matches and Christmas markets. People wanting to attend carnival events as the season kicks off will be required to take a test in addition to being vaccinated or having recovered.
Berlin is also on track to introduced similar “2G-plus” rules, its mayor, Michael Müller, said on Tuesday. The city hopes to reopen vaccine centres, which were closed across the country at the end of the summer when they were deemed no longer necessary, but authorities have said this would happen in January or February at the earliest.
The 2G regulations are similar to, though not as stringent as, rules introduced in Austria on Monday, under which unvaccinated people above the age of 12 in the states of Upper Austria and Salzburg have been confined to their homes for 10 days, except for necessary tasks such as going to school or work, to the doctors, to shop for food, or for exercise.
Police are carrying out random spot checks on individuals and have the power to issue €400 fines. Austria has an incidence rate of about 850 cases per 100,000 people.
As the Social Democrats, the Greens and the pro-business FDP entered what they said were the final rounds of negotiations in Berlin about forming a government next month, they announced they had agreed on new, tougher coronavirus measures to be applied across Germany. These include only allowing people on to buses and trains if they have been vaccinated, have recovered or have tested negative. It was unclear on Tuesday how this would be implemented.
Another measure being pushed by the Greens in particular is a vaccine mandate for people in certain fields of work such as care homes or hospitals. The FDP has called for a vaccine mandate in the armed forces. The Social Democrats’ Olaf Scholz, the likely future chancellor, said he was in favour of a vaccine mandate if there was widespread consensus for it. An opinion poll on Tuesday by the pollster Forsa showed that 53% of Germans were in favour.
The three parties have said they will resist a blanket lockdown and instead are in favour of legislation to allow each of the 16 states to impose their own restrictions. Measures introduced as emergency legislation in the Bundestag that gave the federal government the power to introduce disease control restrictions are due to expire on 25 November. There has been criticism of the new government that by allowing nothing comparable to take its place, a signal is potentially being sent out that the measures are no longer needed as the pandemic is under control, which is clearly not the case. The Forsa poll showed that 60% of Germans are against dropping the measures.
Christian Drosten, a leading virologist and coronavirus expert, has repeatedly warned in recent weeks that the vaccine and booster jabs alone will not be enough to control the spread of the virus, and that physical distancing rules will have to be reintroduced.
Merkel and Scholz are due to hold a video conference with state leaders on Thursday to discuss the next measures.
Austria’s chancellor, Alexander Schallenberg, said the lockdown of the unvaccinated there had already started to have an effect, with more than half a million people opting to get a vaccination in the days before the lockdown, and vaccine centres reporting a heavy stream of people seeking a jab since Monday.
“That is exactly what we wanted to achieve,” Schallenberg said. His aim was “to persuade the unvaccinated to vaccinate and not to lock up the vaccinated”. About 65% of Austrians are vaccinated.
In Upper Austria, one of the main hotspots, clinics reported 59 deaths in four days, a record number, and there were 93 Covid patients in intensive care beds, 80 of whom were unvaccinated. On the normal wards, three out of four of the 513 people being treated for coronavirus were unvaccinated.
Hospitals in Salzburg said they had been overwhelmed with patients and had introduced a triage system to decide which patients should get an intensive care bed.