Until recently, Germany has been widely recognised as an exemplar of how to handle the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in Europe. But a recent uptick in cases in the country has mirrored similar trends in Spain, France and Italy, leading to a host of questions as to why Germany’s successful track record is now under threat. Why was Germany initially so successful? What is the cause of this recent rise? Are countries like the UK heading the same way?
According to John Hopkins University Germany has seen just 11.18 confirmed deaths per 100,000 people due to COVID-19, as of 25 August. By comparison, the UK figure is 62.44, over five times as many. Of course, it is difficult to draw direct comparisons between individual countries – but in this case, the statistics are clear: Germany has handled the pandemic with far more efficacy than the UK.
This may well be due to the German government’s initial reaction. Germany is split into 16 Bundesländer, or federal states, each of which have powers to enforce restrictions and intervene in people’s lives on a state level, without having to wait for guidance on national policy from Angela Merkel’s government. So when a cluster of cases became apparent at the end of February in North-Rhine Westphalia, swift action was taken with the closure of schools and leisure facilities in the town of Heinsberg on 26 February.
Despite these and other state-wide restrictions being quickly introduced, Germany looked to be in danger at this early stage. Just 48 hours after refusing to impose travel restrictions on Italy, with COVID-19 yet to truly take hold in Europe, it became the ninth most affected country in the world, second in Europe behind Italy. Nonetheless, as coronavirus began to circulate much more widely, it soon became clear that the German government was taking the threat it posed much more seriously than other European nations.
While the UK was still on a herd immunity strategy, Germany was taking action. On 10 March, with a 7-day average of 196 new cases, all gatherings of over 1000 people were banned with immediate effect. Three days later, schools were closed in 14 of Germany’s 16 federal states and by the 14 February, many individual states were taking increasingly strict measures to try and limit the spread of the virus. In the capital, Berlin, it was announced that all bars, clubs and other leisure venues would close for the foreseeable future, with Schleswig-Holstein and Saarland following suit.
Borders also became increasingly tight. The EU announced a 30 day ban on non-EU citizens from entering on 18 March, and Germany imposed additional restrictions on EU-citizens travelling from Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Luxembourg and Spain. By the 22 March, Merkel had announced more stringent measures, preventing more than two people from different households from meeting, requiring a 1.5 metre gap between people from different families and closing non-essential businesses such as hairdressers and non-essential retail. Individual states were permitted to impose stricter measures and many did, including curfews and bans on leaving the house except for essential travel, exercise and shopping.
These measures may sound very similar to those that the UK itself imposed, if on a swifter timescale. So why has the UK seen so many more deaths? Part of the issue was arrivals from abroad. In early April, Germany introduced a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all international arrivals, vastly helping to reduce spread from those who entered the country with the virus. The UK introduced a similar policy, but not until June, and this only lasted for a few weeks before the government caved in to pressure from the travel industry and adopted a more targeted approach.
But probably the most significant factor was Germany’s world-leading test and tracing systems. While the UK stopped community testing around the time it went into lockdown on 23 March, doing barely 5,000 tests a day, Germany was already pushing 100,000 in the same time period. This meant that a much higher percentage of cases in Germany were being detected amongst the general population, not just the most severe amongst hospital patients and key workers as was the case in the UK. As well as effective testing procedures, Germany also has a highly successful tracing element which has been in place since the pandemic began. In another comparison to the UK, the Robert Koch Institut released an app to track Covid-19 in the German population as early as 7 April. Meanwhile, the UK is still waiting for its “world-beating” coronavirus test and trace app, which seems to have disappeared into the wind.
These measures have greatly paid off for Germany. As of 25th August they have recorded 234,494 confirmed cases and just 9,275 deaths. Compared to the UK’s record of 327,643 cases and a huge 41,515 deaths, this seems to indicate a far higher rate of detection and hence a far lower rate of mortality.
Could things be starting to go wrong? Since mid-August, the seven-day average of new cases in Germany has been over 1000, up from a low of 288 on 13 July. There are a number of contributing factors to this, one of which may simply be fatigue amongst German people. Just as the UK has seen thousands crowd its beaches on hot summer days, many in Germany are beginning to wish for normality again. On 1 August, there was a mass protest in the capital against coronavirus measures, which saw thousands attending without masks and with no effort to maintain social distancing. As we have seen in other nations around the world, there is a sector of German society fed up with what they consider to be government interference in their daily lives.
However, this degree of recklessness among some of the population is not the only cause behind this spike in cases. Returning travellers from abroad are thought to be another problem behind the rise. The easing of restrictions in Germany has included fewer restrictions on travel, with many holiday-makers visiting countries with far higher infection rates than in Germany. There have also been accusations that restrictions have been lifted too quickly: schools in Germany have been amongst the first to reopen in Europe; the government is now facing accusations of being too lax after over 40 schools in Berlin alone reported coronavirus outbreaks.
The exact causes behind the rise in cases remain unclear. But as Germany grapples to regain control of the virus, it is a stark warning for countries across Europe and around the world. As schoolchildren across the UK return and restrictions are increasingly eased, it is vital to maintain a grip on the spread of the virus. While Germany have been responsive to the crisis from the start, the UK government’s approach has been woefully slow, vacillating and wholly reactive. While Germany acted to pour water on the flames of coronavirus, the UK government stood with their backs to the fire, diverting everyone’s attention.
During this crisis, we have repeatedly heard that the UK is several weeks behind much of mainland Europe in terms of case numbers and the spread of infection. With cases rising across the continent, we can only hope that it will not get much worse. Only time will tell – but as the UK population becomes increasingly disenfranchised with restrictions over their everyday lives, there is a real danger that it, too, will see a large surge in new infections as we head into winter.