German Chancellor Angela Merkel has ordered a Christmas lockdown amid an alarming rise in coronavirus cases in the country.
Under new emergency measures, which will last from December 16 until January 10, all schools and non-essential shops across Germany are to close and bars and restaurants will remain shut.
In a bid to deter outside gatherings during the period, the sale of fireworks is banned and so, too, drinking alcohol in public. The only concession for Christmas is that up to 10 people will be allowed to meet indoors — currently a maximum of five people from two different households is allowed to gather in homes.
Religious events in churches, synagogues and mosques may take place, if strict hygiene rules are observed, but communal singing is banned.
“I would have wished for lighter measures. But due to Christmas shopping, the number of social contacts has risen considerably,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin after a meeting of federal and state leaders. “There is an urgent need to take action,” she added.
Infection rates have hit record levels in Germany in the past few days and the country now has the 12th highest number of cases in the world.
More than 20,000 new cases were reported by authorities Sunday, bringing the country’s total to 1,320,716, and 21,787 Germans have died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. The country's intensive care unit capacity is at a critical level, and doctors say that only five- to 10 percent of intensive care beds are available in some parts of the country.
Germany’s Finance Ministry announced it was planning further support for businesses and workers impacted by the lockdown, saying, “Companies, the self-employed and freelancers who are affected by closures from December 16 will receive financial support.”
Germany isn’t alone in struggling to suppress transmissions and in some European countries, criticism is mounting of governments for failing to prevent a second pandemic wave. In Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who was praised for his decisiveness in battling the first coronavirus wave earlier this year, is being accused of pursuing an “amateurish” approach this time round.
According to an official tally, Italy is nearing 64,000 deaths from COVID, overtaking Britain, which for weeks has held the lead position in European fatalities. The World Health Organization says Italy is now registering 1,036 deaths per million residents, the second highest after Peru.
Conte held back from ordering a second national lockdown as the second wave started in September — despite appeals from some regional governors. In March, he imposed a tough 10-week lockdown, which tamed the first wave.
The Italian leader has now ratcheted up restrictions for the Christmas period, but some epidemiologists say the move has been too late. Italian microbiologist Andrea Crisanti said, “Italy’s first wave was bad luck but the second wave unforgivable A sign of poor management and amateurish preparation.”
Since September, Italy has recorded more than 28,000 COVID deaths.
Matteo Villa, an analyst at the Institute for International Political Studies, Italy’s oldest research institution, specializing in political and international affairs, said the government dithered and failed to prepare the health system in between waves. “If you can act sooner, even a bit lighter in the measures, they work better than acting harshly a bit later or too late,” he said.
Conte’s poll ratings are now sliding, and his coalition government is being buffeted by desertions and squabbles over the disbursement of recovery funds from the European Union. Matteo Renzi, a former prime minister, has threatened to collapse the coalition government, which also features the populist Five Star movement as well as the Democratic Party, Italy’s main center-left party, by withholding the backing of his centrist Italia Viva party.
Earlier this month, many European governments looked poised to ease coronavirus restrictions for the Christmas period, despite warnings from medical scientists.
They came under mounting public pressure to salvage something of the holiday spirit and they grappled with how far they should go in easing lockdowns or lifting curfews, fearing that having a merry Christmas will likely mean suffering a miserable new year. Now most are heading in the opposite direction with tighter restrictions.
Last week, the French prime minister announced he would still lift the country’s lockdown on Tuesday as planned but retain some strict restrictions and impose some new ones for Christmas because of worrying health data. Jean Castex had hoped to lift many more rules but said the virus is not letting him. A new 8 p.m. curfew is being imposed.
“We are not yet at the end of the second wave, and we won’t be at the goal we set of 5,000 new cases per day,” he said, adding, “We know that the gatherings over the holidays present a risk.
"We need to keep our guard up, stay vigilant,” Castex said.