German government reaches agreement with Lander to ‘seal off’ areas in cases of localised outbreaks

The EURACTIV Network provides you with the latest news on how the country is dealing with the coronavirus health crisis. [Shutterstock]

**This article is continuously updated with the latest developments.

Germany’s federal government has reached an agreement with the states on the ability to institute an entry and exit-ban in the event of a coronavirus outbreak. While entire districts will not be sealed off, highly localised restrictions are possible.

Specifically, the paper issued by the leaders claims that any “unnecessary mobility into and out of the particularly affected areas” will be restricted when the levels of infection continue to rise and officials cannot confirm that they have identified and broken the chains of infection.

However, it also notes that “the sealing off of entire districts, for example in Hamburg or Berlin, is not possible,” and therefore, any restrictions of this type will only be implemented in smaller areas. Additionally, the measures will not come automatically, as “decisions must be made flexibly on site by the responsible authorities.”

Meanwhile, Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) reiterated the need for vigilance and adherence to coronavirus rules on Monday (13 July), noting that “the danger of a second wave is real […] We should not feel a false sense of security” and emphasising that those on holiday should not be overconfident.

His warning came after images surfaced over the weekend of German tourists flouting COVID-19 regulations at the beach-front Ballermann party area on the Spanish island of Mallorca

“We must be very careful that Ballermann does not become a second Ischgl,” he said, referring to the Austrian ski resort that became a COVID-19 hotspot in March. Health experts are now advocating for mass testing and mandatory quarantine for those coming back from the island.

Have German tourists in Mallorca created a second Ischgl-like 'hotspot'?

Beer and sangria flowed in abundance in Mallorca as German tourists celebrated at the ‘Ballermann’ party strip, ignoring coronavirus hygiene rules. Now the island is drawing the consequences, and threatening with penalties. EURACTIV’s media partner Der Tagesspiegel reports.

As of Friday (17 July), there are 201,931 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Germany, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). So far, Germany has recorded 9,082 deaths, and more than 185,100 have recovered. 

In late June, Bavarian Health Minister Melanie Huml (CSU) announced that the state plans to launch a “corona test offensive,” where all residents will be tested for the virus.

Ending restrictions entirely?

In the north-eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the requirement to wear masks in shops could soon come to an end, after the state’s economy minister, Harry Glawe (CDU), came out in favour of scrapping the requirement before 4 August. While officials in Brandenburg and Lower Saxony voiced their support, the idea has drawn opposition from other states and from federal politicians, including from his own party.

On Monday (6 July), Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) came out against the idea. “Whether on the bus, in the subway or in retail stores, it should remain obligatory to wear masks,” government speaker Steffen Seibert said.

Both party colleagues, Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) and CDU party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, also oppose the idea.

Despite the widespread criticism, the liberal FDP has now advocated a full review of all of Germany’s COVID-19 restrictions following a court ruling to end the Gütersloh lockdown on Monday (6 July). They claim that any restriction of freedoms should be proportionate. The review could strike down Germany’s mask requirements.

Outbreak at another meat plant

On 17 June, a spokesperson for Gütersloh in North Rhine-Westphalia announced that the district will be closing its schools and daycare centres to slow the spread of coronavirus following a local outbreak, which began in a meat-packing plant. Schools remained closed until the start of the state’s summer holidays on 29 June.

In the initial news of the outbreak, outlets reported that of the 500 COVID-19 tests conducted at the plant, 400 have come back positive.

Later, after confirmation that more than 1,550 had been infected, North-Rhine Westphalia  put the two districts surrounding the plant back into lockdown. The measures initially lasted for one week, but state leader Armin Laschet (CDU) issued a week-long extension for the state of Gütersloh on 29 June given the persistently high levels of infection. An administrative court eventually ended the lockdown on 6 July, deeming it unnecessary given the better public health situation.

However, Laschet was quick to defend his state, which was one of the first to reopen in Germany, claiming the state’s easing of coronavirus restrictions was not the cause of the infections. Instead, he pointed the finger at the factory’s Romanian and Bulgarian workers, as well as working conditions and accommodation.

After a meeting of state leaders on 17 June, Laschet told reporters that “because Romanians and Bulgarians entered the country, that’s where the virus came from.” “This is going to happen everywhere. […] This has nothing to do with loosening up, but with the placement of people in accommodation and working conditions in factories,” he added.

In response, the Romanian embassy in Berlin asked the state leader to clarify his position, while Romania’s foreign ministry contacted the German embassy in Bucharest to point out how these “unclear” statements had been perceived.

Green and Social Democrat leaders demanded an apology and pointed to the exploitative labour practices.

The health and sanitation conditions in Germany’s meat-packing plants have been in the news after there was an outbreak at another plant in the same state in May. They have also come under fire for allegedly using exploitative labour practices.

Coronavirus tracing app finally rolled out

After a long wait, the German government finally rolled out its coronavirus tracing app.

Sparing no self-congratulations at the event on 16 June, Minister to the Chancellor’s Office Helge Braun (CDU) claimed: “This is not the first corona app worldwide to be presented, but I am quite convinced that it is the best.” The entire government is throwing its weight behind the app.

German government presents 'best coronavirus tracing app worldwide'

The German ‘Corona-Warn-App’ is here, and the government gave it the hard sell when ministers presented it on Tuesday (16 June), EURACTIV Germany reports.

In its first 24 hours on 16 June, the new ‘Corona-Warn-App’ garnered an unexpectedly high number of downloads. The app was downloaded by 6.4 million users. Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) was pleased with the results, noting that such a “strong start should motivate even more citizens to participate because containing the coronavirus is a team effort.”

The app acts as a contact diary which aims to warn an infected person’s contacts. If two smartphones with the app get close enough to each other for more than 15 minutes, both phones will store this contact in the form of an anonymous, randomly generated ID.

A week after its roll-out (23 June), Germany’s so-called ‘Corona-Warn-App’ issued its first push-notification to users that have come into contact with infected people.

Around 24 users were registered as infected with COVID-19, and that evening, the app sent out notifications to their contacts. Given the decentralised data privacy approach, officials do not know how many people were notified or where they were located.

Users who have received an alert from the app can be tested for COVID-19 for free, even if they aren’t showing symptoms

Data advocates have commended the app’s source code – which has been public for a while – for being clean. However, IT security expert Alvar Freude also found a flaw in the databases.

Should a hacker penetrate the app, they would have full access rights to the IDs and can publish, delete or manipulate them. He, along with other data protection advocates, are in favour of a corona-app law, which should clearly define what may or may not be done with the data and how this should be guaranteed.

German COVID-19 app 'clean' but still lacks legal basis, experts say

Next week, Germany will present its so-called “Corona-Warn-App”, Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) has announced. However, while the public source code seems to be clean, data protection advocates still demand a legal basis. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Officials have said that the coronavirus tracker app will not store data centrally in a win for privacy advocates. Rather than on a centrally managed server, government officials will advocate storing information locally on the user’s device, Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) and Head of the Chancellery Helge Braun confirmed on 26 April.

Early in May, German EPP members suggested that users should get special privileges when travelling abroad or going to restaurants to help increase the app’s usage.

Investment in CureVac

On Monday (15 June), Economy Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) announced that the German government will be investing €300 million into the company CureVac during a press conference with co-founder of the company’s largest investor, Dietmar Hopp. This amount will give the government a 23% stake in the company.

CureVac is one of the firms in the race to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus. They published encouraging pre-clinical trial studies in mid-May and will begin trials with healthy volunteers in June.

German government takes a stake in vaccine developer CureVac

In the global race for a coronavirus vaccine, the German government is investing €300 million and acquiring a stake in the biotech company CureVac, regarded as one of the leaders in the development of a vaccine in Germany. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Gradually loosening border and travel restrictions

At midnight on 15 June, Germany ended all of the border controls with  its neighbouring countries. At the same time, the Foreign Office’s travel warnings for the majority of EU countries have also expired, as per Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’ (SPD) announcement on 3 June.

However, travel warnings remain in place for more than 160 countries outside of Europe.

Germany to lift travel warning for Europe

On 15 June, the German travel warnings for EU countries including the extended Schengen area and UK will end, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Wednesday (3 June). EURACTIV Germany reports.

Maas had been hesitant around restarting tourism. In April, he warned against a race to restart tourism claiming it “will lead to unacceptable risks” and possibly longer lockdowns.

This comes after Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) announced on 13 May that Germany will gradually reopen its borders starting 16 May. While the border with Luxembourg fully reopened on 16 May, border controls with France, Switzerland, and Austria will be loosened until 15 June, according to an agreement reached with each of these countries. The German and Danish governments are still negotiating an end date to those controls.

The border closures had become the subject of criticism with Seehofer’s 4 May decision to extend border closures until 15 May condemned by members of the Bundestag and the European Parliament. Despite the criticism, Seehofer remained firm on the closures.

The economy: recessions, bailouts, and end of the “debt brake”

As Germany has implemented a series of coronavirus restrictions, the government has simultaneously crafted and implemented multiple historic relief packages to mitigate the economic damage caused by the virus.

Approved on 25 March, the first multi-billion-euro aid programme included a €600 billion “Economic Stabilisation Fund,” intended to help businesses, freelancers, and renters. It is the largest rescue package in German history. A second €10 billion package adopted in April included more money for workers.

On 14 May, the Bundestag approved another coronavirus aid package, which includes additional funding for increase testing and healthcare workers, as well as more money for workers who were forced to reduce their hours.

On 28 May, the Bundestag agreed on further aid to combat the impacts of the coronavirus, which includes more funding to ease the financial burden on restaurants and families in particular. It was announced that working parents who have to look after their children will be entitled to 20 weeks worth of wage compensation, and the VAT on restaurant meals has been lowered from 17% to 9%.

After Olaf Scholz’ announcement in mid-May and division on key points of the bill, Germany’s grand coalition reached an agreement for a €130 billion stimulus package on 3 June. The plan includes a reduced VAT rate and beefed-up electric vehicle purchase premiums.

Germany's €130bn stimulus package praised by all sides

After 21 hours of negotiations spread over two days, Germany’s grand coalition came to an agreement on the €130 billion economic stimulus package close to midnight on Wednesday (3 June). The result has been received surprisingly positively by all sides. EURACTIV Germany reports.

These massive stimulus plans have forced the German government to borrow €218.5 billion. Some conservative German politicians have started to voice their discomfort with the rising levels of the national debt.

At the CSU virtual party conference on 23 May, Bavarian state premier Markus Söder demanded an upper limit for coronavirus-related spending, while Economy Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) had called for the economic stimulus programme to be clearly limited in terms of “amount, scope and duration.”

State aid has not only gone to workers, as the German government has approved or is considering bailouts for some of the country’s largest businesses. However, some of the largest payouts have been held up due to differences in opinion on conditions for the aid.

On 27 April, Economy Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) announced that he wants to attach further conditions on coronavirus aid funding to corporations. In an interview, he said that companies accepting state money should forgo paying shareholder dividends.

The degree of the conditions divided the grand coalition, and in particular, caused delays on the Lufthansa bailout for weeks, as politicians and company leaders disagreed over the role the government should play on the board.

After weeks of debate, the German government announced its €9 billion bailout plan for Lufthansa on Monday (25 May) following last week’s reports on an agreement between the members of the grand coalition. However, in exchange, the government will be taking over 20% of the company’s shares and become a silent partner on the board.

The supervisory board of German airline Lufthansa voted on 1 June in favour of the government’s €9 billion aid package, after the European Commission compromised on its conditions for approving the bailout.

Ultimately, the Lufthansa package was approved by the company’s shareholders with 98% approving, despite concerns of a last-minute veto from a billionaire stakeholder. The €9 billion deal was also approved by the European Commission on 25 June.

More reporting on Germany’s economic response:

Lufthansa’s €9bn mega-bailout cleared for takeoff

Lufthansa shareholders and the European Commission both approved Berlin’s €9 billion rescue package on Thursday (25 June), as the German airline continues to struggle to ride out the economic slump caused by the coronavirus.

Germany’s exit strategy: an end to federal cooperation?

The German government and states reached an agreement to prolong the country’s contact restrictions until 29 June with some small opportunities to relax restrictions beginning 6 June. However, not long after signing the statement, Thuringian leaders claimed their right to ease restrictions earlier. Other states said they intended to follow suit.

This could be the start of drastically divergent paths that spell the end for Germany’s relatively harmonious federal coronavirus cooperation.

German states claim sole responsibility for coronavirus regulation, sidelining federal government

At the weekend, the leader of Thuringia announced plans to end coronavirus restrictions in the eastern German state and replace them with local measures. Saxony voiced its support for the idea, while other states quickly condemned the move, possibly heralding the end the country’s relatively harmonious federal coronavirus cooperation. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Previously, Germany announced a fairly significant easing of restrictions following a meeting of the federal government and state leaders on 6 May. While maintaining the distance and mask requirements, all of Germany’s stores were allowed to reopen that week with restaurants shortly after. However, the leaders also agreed to an emergency mechanism to automatically reinstate the measures if infections spike.

More on Germany’s COVID-19 restrictions here:

Franco-German proposal for European recovery

Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron announced their joint proposal for a €500 billion European recovery programme following a virtual conference on 18 May.

The initiative seeks to bring Europe out of the crisis “united and in solidarity,” and prepare the EU for future challenges. Alongside the funding, the proposal includes plans for enhancing EU sovereignty and building capacity in the healthcare sector.

Merkel and Macron roll out €500 billion COVID-19 recovery initiative

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron announced their joint proposal for a €500 billion European recovery programme following a virtual conference on Monday (18 May). The initiative seeks to bring Europe out of the crisis “united and in solidarity,” and prepare the EU for future challenges. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Find more reporting on Germany’s stance on EU recovery proposals:

COVID protests and criticism of a cautious approach

Despite the recent easing of measures, thousands protested coronavirus restrictions and accused politicians and medical experts of fear-mongering and curtailing citizens’ fundamental rights in major cities across Germany on 9 May, refusing to respect social distancing rules or wear masks.

In response, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that people must adhere to the protective measures in place on 11 May.

“Despite all the loosening, we really do have the certainty that people will stick to the basic commandments,” the chancellor said, urging people to “keep your distance, wear a face mask that covers your mouth and nose, show consideration for each other.”

She reiterated this message on 13 May in her government Q&A in the Bundestag, warning:  “The basic facts have not changed. There are still no drugs and no vaccine.”

Previously, some officials have also wanted to restart the economy more quickly.

In an interview published on 26 April, Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) disagreed with subordinating all other concerns to the goal of saving lives, claiming “this in its absolutism is not correct,” as the German constitution’s right to human dignity “does not exclude the possibility that we must die.”


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