Coronavirus pandemic Stricter restrictions recommended by committee of experts

Berlin · The Coronavirus Council of Experts set up by the new government sees a "need for action" already for the coming days because of the spread of the Omicron variant.

 The Netherlands is again imposing tougher measures and experts in Germany are also calling for contact restrictions. The health minister, however, sees no need for a new lockdown.

The Netherlands is again imposing tougher measures and experts in Germany are also calling for contact restrictions. The health minister, however, sees no need for a new lockdown.

Foto: dpa/Federico Gambarini

"Effective nationwide coordinated countermeasures to control the spread of infection must be prepared, in particular with well-planned and well-communicated contact restrictions," was the message released in Berlin on Sunday and first reported by the ARD Berlin studio.

The federal and state governments will discuss the further course of action on Tuesday, it was agreed by Chancellor Olaf Scholz and North Rhine-Westphalia's head of government Hendrik Wüst, the chairman of the Conference of Minister Presidents.

“Utmost urgency” is essential, particularly for the elderly and other vulnerable people who are at risk of contracting severe cases of COVID-19, the Council of Experts’ statement said. Models show that booster vaccinations alone cannot contain the Omicron wave effectively enough. As a result, "additional contact restrictions" are necessary.

"In addition to the necessary political decisions, the population must be strongly encouraged to do their part to prevent the spread of infection," the experts said. "This includes avoiding large gatherings, wearing FFP2 masks wherever possible, especially indoors, and getting tested for the Coronavirus before meeting others at the festive season."

"The pandemic has a new quality"

The measures currently in place should be applied "even more stringently". "In parallel, the vaccination campaign should be intensified. Everything possible must be done to make sure even more booster vaccinations as well as first and second vaccinations are available over the holiday period.”

National and international models about the dynamics of COVID-19 transmission and possible peak incidences have revealed a “new quality of the pandemic” the council said. “The epidemic doubling time of the Omicron variant in Germany is currently estimated to be in the range of approximately 2-4 days." The measures currently in place mean that this doubling time is somewhat slower than in England, but it is significantly faster than all previous variants, it said.

"Should the spread of the Omicron variant in Germany continue in this way, a significant portion of the population would be ill and/or in quarantine at the same time," it went on. "This would put an extreme strain on the health system and the entire critical infrastructure of our country."

Impression of easing off “not justified”

The Omicron variant brings a "new dimension" to the pandemic. The variant is more easily transmissible, and it can get around existing immune protection. The Coronavirus Council of Experts advising the German government includes virologist Christian Drosten, virologist Melanie Brinkmann and the chair of the German Ethics Council, Alena Buyx - as well as Thomas Mertens, chair of the Permanent Vaccination Commission, and Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute, among others.

"The Omicron wave is hitting a population that is exhausted by a pandemic that has lasted almost two years, by fighting this pandemic, and by massive tensions that are evident on a daily basis." What we need more than anything now is a comprehensive communication strategy that clearly explains the new risks and the new measures. The situation is explosive, and the Omicron wave can only be kept under control through determined and sustained political action, the council says.

After two years, in this fourth and so far strongest wave of the Coronavirus pandemic, the German health system is working under intense pressure. Hospital staff numbers are down, and they will continue to decrease. “At the moment, the incidence rate is decreasing, and large parts of society and politicians are taking this as a sign that things are improving. There will be delays in reporting over the holiday period, and this will further strengthen this impression.” But this impression is wrong.

Lauterbach against lockdown as in the Netherlands

Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach had previously ruled out a pre-Christmas, Netherlands-style lockdown. "No, we will not have a lockdown like in the Netherlands before Christmas," the SPD politician told ARD's "Report from Berlin" on Sunday. In the "Bild" talk show "Die richtigen Fragen", Lauterbach said, "I would rule out a hard lockdown now before Christmas. That's clear." According to the "Bild" report, Lauterbach also considers a hard lockdown "unlikely" despite the Omicron variant and a fifth, severe wave of infection.

"But the reality is that we will get a fifth wave," Lauterbach said on ARD. "We have now exceeded a critical number of people infected with the Omicron variant. So this wave can no longer be stopped completely, and we have to face up to it."

In the Netherlands, a harsh lockdown went into effect on Sunday in light of the rapidly spreading Omicron variant of the Coronavirus. Almost all shops, restaurants, cultural and sports facilities, schools and hairdressers remain closed. Essential shops like supermarkets and pharmacies can remain open.

Lauterbach said, "A very central message is that with a booster campaign we can actually protect those who would otherwise be particularly vulnerable." With regard to the assessment of the government’s Council of Experts, Lauterbach said, "This will form the basis for further discussions.”

Concern about many illness-related absences

Lauterbach said that classifying the UK as a virus-variant area with travel restrictions as of Monday was an important step forward. He argued for more far-reaching rules: "Personally, I'd like it better if another PCR test was also required on arrival to be absolutely sure."

Referring to the more contagious Omicron variant and the possibility that there could be increased absenteeism in groups such as police officers and firefighters, the minister said, “We are actually looking into how we can protect the so-called critical infrastructure if that were to happen. I hope that will not be the case. We are doing everything we can to prevent it, but we have to be prepared." He said he was working on this together with the head of the crisis unit, Major General Carsten Breuer. At the moment, crisis plans are being compiled by the Robert Koch Institute, the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Aid (Bundesamt für Bevölkerungsschutz und Katastrophenhilfe)  the Federal Ministry of the Interior and the Federal Office for Data Security (Bundesamt für Sicherheit in der Informationstechnik).

Original text: dpa

Translation: Jean Lennox

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