Germans are anxious about their sudden freedom
When I was in Germany last week, Covid restrictions were still in full swing. This became all too apparent when I bought a cup of coffee in a petrol station and then proceeded to the empty cafe area at the back to drink it. “Halt!” shouted the lady from behind the counter, “you can’t just sit there and drink coffee,” she added incredulously. “I need to see your ID and vaccination status!” Naturally, I had left my phone in the car and with it the NHS app. By the time I’d passed the checks, my coffee was cold.
This weekend, almost exactly two years after the first lockdown began, Germany lifted nearly all restrictions. It was the first day of spring. Many people were out and about, enjoying the glorious sunshine and a cup of coffee obtained without presenting papers.
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But beneath the surface, tensions have been running high over the decision. In a heated parliamentary debate last Friday, the only party in the three-way coalition that defended the lifting of restrictions was the Free Liberals (FDP). Cynical voices have since wondered whether this was a deal the chancellor struck with their Finance Minister Christian Lindner — a key ally in Scholz’s expensive plans to upgrade Germany’s military.
The 16 states that comprise Germany’s federal system are also sharply critical. They have a transition period of just under two weeks before they must lift their restrictions. Then only covid ‘Hotspots’ may introduce localised measures. Such was the level of dissatisfaction with Berlin’s lack of consultation with state leaders that the minister president of the State of Hessen even called it the “nadir in the relationship between the federal government and the states”.
What’s more, two-thirds of Germans still feel that it was too early for ‘Freedom Day’. The public and many medical experts are still concerned about the record number of new infections with well over 100,000 new cases each day. Dirk Brockmann, who leads on some of the modelling and official statistics in Germany, warns that, “we are currently in the middle of the rise up to the second peak of the Omicron wave”.
But rising infections are unlikely to overwhelm the health system. Tobias Welte, director of a clinic in Hanover, estimates that over 80% of his ‘Covid patients’ have checked in for unrelated reasons and only tested positive as part of routine checks, skewing the figures. Indeed, intensive care admissions have been in decline since December last year and continued to fall as Omicron spread.
Politically, Scholz should be able to see out any danger. Nothing is eaten as hot as it is cooked, as they say in Germany. A transition period of two weeks is more than enough time for anger and anxiety to subside. Germany has its hands full with the war in Ukraine, its u-turn in defence and energy policy and a looming petrol crisis among other things. As the restrictions are lifted in each state, attention will return to more pressing matters.
Germany has broken the link between transmission and serious illness, it just doesn’t believe it yet.