Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn, has called for understanding of a continuation of harsh lockdown conditions in Germany, saying they were necessary to prevent a “considerable worsening” of the current situation despite a slowdown in the rate of infections.
Germany’s death toll rose to over 51,000 on Thursday, having been increasing at an average of 1,000 deaths a day for several weeks.
Spahn told a press conference, flanked by the head of the government disease control agency, the country’s leading coronavirus virologist and the head of intensive care medicine, that the measures would have to remain in place until at least “the end of February or into March”. He cited the dangers of mutations first detected in England, South Africa and Brazil as being a factor behind the decision.
Germany reported almost 18,000 new coronavirus cases on Friday, approximately 4,000 less than a week ago.
Spahn said he could understand the bafflement of many Germans over why the measures had been extended and intensified in recent days, despite a fall in numbers. Public discontent was reflected in a flurry of emails, telephone calls and letters he had received, he said.
“The numbers of the last few days are encouraging. They’re going in the right direction. The infection rate is sinking. We’re seeing the first easing on intensive care wards … but it’s still a considerable burden with very many Covid-19 patients in the intensive care wards and in hospital.
“But the numbers are still too high, and what we need is to collectively use the intensified measures, despite the many hardships they bring with them, to continue to suppress the numbers … so that this virus is controllable,” he said.
For months Germany’s coronavirus rate has been too high to enable contact tracing, which Spahn said was a crucial tool for being able to control the disease.
With almost 5,000 Iintensive care unit beds currently taken up with Covid-19 patients, Spahn insisted it was imperative to reduce numbers being hospitalised to prevent the health system becoming overwhelmed.
“If we look at other countries in Europe we can see how quickly the situation becomes inflamed again,” he said, later referring specifically to Britain and Portugal.
Facing renewed criticism about the slow progress of Germany’s vaccine programme compared to other countries such as Britain, Spahn said he was confident that it would quickly pick up once production capacities increased – with a new factory for the BioNTech company expected to be completed next month. The AstraZeneca vaccine is also due to be available in Germany within the next few days.
So far 1.5 million people had received the jab, Spahn said. He said 60% of the residents of care homes had so far received a first shot, and in total 80% had been offered and accepted the offer. The take-up rate was also currently higher than expected among care workers, about 80% of whom had so far taken up the offer.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said on Thursday that all citizens could expect to have been offered the jab by 21 September.
Spahn said there was no plan to delay access to second jabs. He said the German government would follow scientific advice that the highest protection would be provided if the gap between the first and second doses was between three to six weeks.
With the focus initially being on the most vulnerable, he said he did not want to risk a situation whereby a mutation might escape leaving older people particularly exposed to infection.
“The clear recommendation of our vaccine commission was and remains that the time gap between the first and second doses should be between three and a maximum of six weeks … Scientists have explained to us that the risk of waiting can mean there is not adequate protection against more virulent mutations. With this in mind we’re sticking to the original time plan.”