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As the second wave arrives, can Germany escape the worst again?

People wear face masks as they ride an E-scooter in the Old Elbe Tunnel in Hamburg, Germany, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. To avoid the spread of the coronavirus the use of a face mask in the 117-year-old tunnel under the Elbe river is mandatory. (AP Photo/Michael Probst) – Michael Probst/AP

Germany is once more in the grip of the coronavirus. Angela Merkel warned a few days ago that the country, which appeared to have escaped the second wave, could be heading for “disaster” unless drastic action is taken.

In the past week alone, the headlines have included children being told to bring blankets to school because the windows have to be opened every twenty minutes to ward off the virus, and the news that the entire leadership of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency is self-isolating after testing positive.

Every day, the record for new infections is broken. There were 7,334 on Friday, up from 6,638 the day before. It’s still nowhere near the sort of numbers seen in the UK or France, but the rate is going up fast.

“We don’t expect the numbers to fall tomorrow. They will continue to rise,” Helge Braun, Mrs Merkel’s chief of staff, said on Friday. “We are at the beginning of a really big second wave. Things are significantly more serious than they were in the spring.”

It is a stark assessment for a country that, until now, appears to have weathered the pandemic better than almost anywhere else in Europe.

“A German exception?” was the headline in the New York Times earlier this year, when Germany made it through the first wave with a significantly lower infection and death rates than its European neighbours.

People wearing protective face masks walk in the pedestrian area in the city of Dortmund, western Germany, on October 14, 2020, amid the ongoing novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. - In Dortmund, wearing a mask is mandatory in the pedestrian zone since October 13 as a measure to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The German Chancellor wants measures toughened up to fight a surge in coronavirus infections, including requiring masks in more places and limiting numbers of people gathering for private events, according to a draft policy paper seen by AFP. The proposals to be discussed with premiers from Germany's 16 states later on October 14 would see the restrictions kick in once an area records 35 new infections per 100,000 people over seven days. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP) (Photo by INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images) - INA FASSBENDER/AFP
People wearing protective face masks walk in the pedestrian area in the city of Dortmund, western Germany, on October 14, 2020, amid the ongoing novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. – In Dortmund, wearing a mask is mandatory in the pedestrian zone since October 13 as a measure to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The German Chancellor wants measures toughened up to fight a surge in coronavirus infections, including requiring masks in more places and limiting numbers of people gathering for private events, according to a draft policy paper seen by AFP. The proposals to be discussed with premiers from Germany’s 16 states later on October 14 would see the restrictions kick in once an area records 35 new infections per 100,000 people over seven days. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP) (Photo by INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images) – INA FASSBENDER/AFP

As recently as a month ago, articles were being written about how the German authorities had managed to avoid a second wave. Boris Johnson put it down to the theory Germans are more law-abiding than the “freedom-loving” British.

All that seems far away now. But, as Germany battens down the hatches for the second wave, it has one significant advantage over countries like France, Spain and the UK: time to prepare.

When Prof Christian Drosten, Mrs Merkel’s chief medical advisor on the crisis, was asked what was behind Germany’s success in tackling the first wave, his answer was unequivocal.

“We responded using exactly the same measures as others,” he said. “We haven’t done anything particularly well. We just did it a bit earlier.”

When the first wave hit, Germany had the advantage that Italy and Spain had already been in the grip of the virus for weeks. 

“We were lucky. We got a high level of public respect for the disease because of the reports coming in from Italy, and most people adhered to social distancing guidelines,” said Prof Max Geraedts of Marburg University.

History is repeating itself. Once again, Germany is among the last major European countries to be hit. But it remains to be seen whether it can make as good use of the advantage a second time.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by HAYOUNG JEON/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10953939ae) German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a press conference at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 14 October 2020. German Chancellor Merkel met the heads of the federal states for a discussion on the restrictions against the coronavirus (COVID-19). German Chancellor Merkel meets heads of federal states in Berlin, Germany - 14 Oct 2020 - HAYOUNG JEON/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Mandatory Credit: Photo by HAYOUNG JEON/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10953939ae) German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a press conference at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 14 October 2020. German Chancellor Merkel met the heads of the federal states for a discussion on the restrictions against the coronavirus (COVID-19). German Chancellor Merkel meets heads of federal states in Berlin, Germany – 14 Oct 2020 – HAYOUNG JEON/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

This time, the authorities have the added complication of lockdown fatigue and a population weary of endless restrictions.

The summer saw thousands take to the streets of Berlin in mass protests against the government’s coronavirus policies, during which a far-Right group even attempted to storm the parliament building.

Mrs Merkel’s warnings of disaster have seen her described as a “Cassandra” in the German press, and her attempts to introduce tougher restrictions have met with frustration.

Regional leaders, who have the final say over lockdown measures under Germany’s federal system, this week rebuffed her call for restrictions on travel around the country.

A limited ban on people from areas with high infection rates staying in hotels and holiday rentals caused so much public anger many German states have dropped it.

The German courts have frustrated Mrs Merkel’s efforts too, overturning an 11pm curfew for restaurants and pubs in Berlin.

On top of which Germany’s much-vaunted testing and tracing programme appears to be buckling under the strain of so many tests, with laboratories around the country warning they are close to capacity.

Medical staff takes a COVID-19 test at a coronavirus test center in Cologne, Germany, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. The city exceeded the important warning level of 50 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants in seven days. More and more German cities become official high risk corona hotspots with travel restrictions within Germany. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner) - Martin Meissner/AP
Medical staff takes a COVID-19 test at a coronavirus test center in Cologne, Germany, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. The city exceeded the important warning level of 50 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants in seven days. More and more German cities become official high risk corona hotspots with travel restrictions within Germany. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner) – Martin Meissner/AP

Yet it is far from clear whether the authorities have prepared as well as they did for the first wave.

Germany developed its own testing programme as soon as the first reports of a new virus emerged from China, and had it in place before the pandemic reached Europe.

Prof Drosten was one of the key figures behind that decision, but his calls over the summer to move away from a mass testing programme have gone unheeded.

“Nine out of ten infected people play no role in spreading the virus. With one there is multiple transmission, a cluster,” Prof Drosten said, calling on the authorities to focus testing on potential superspreader events. But as in the UK, tests continue to rise indiscriminately, with Germany carrying out around 1.1m a week.

All of which has left Mrs Merkel and her government with little at their disposal beyond persuasion. It appears her outburst to regional leaders that they were risking “disaster” this week may have been deliberately leaked to concentrate minds.

Jens Spahn, the health minister, was explicit. “We have it in our own hands,” he said this week. “What we do now will decide whether Christmas can go ahead in the normal way.”


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