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Germany relaxes COVID measures, even as risks remain

Thurau Jens Kommentarbild App
Jens Thurau
February 16, 2022

The government wants to lift virtually all restrictions by March 20, despite high infection numbers. That's why the debate about a vaccination mandate will now be crucial, says DW's Jens Thurau.

A sign in Cologne asking people if they have been tested for Covid?
Ad campaigns are pushing people to get tested and vaccinatedImage: Ying Tang/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Was that it for COVID in Germany? That's almost the impression you could get. Although the numbers of new infections are still alarmingly high, they have been falling as of late and seem to be past their peak. And that's why the pandemic seems to be fading more and more into the background for most people.

DW's political affairs correspondent in Berlin, Jens Thurau
DW's political affairs correspondent, Jens ThurauImage: DW

Although everyone seems to know someone who got COVID, people don't seem to be that afraid of it anymore. The omicron variant is infecting many right now, but most of those infections lead to only mild or no symptoms at all. That is why the high rate of infections fails to set off any alarm bells, with the decisive criteria now being just how full hospitals are. And right now, it all seems manageable.

Vaccination rate remains low

That's why politicians, the chancellor and the state premiers have had to react. And they did. Step by step by March 20, almost all restrictions that people have had to endure over the past two years are expected to fall. There is no way around this since freedom is of central importance in our democracy. Freedom can only be restricted when absolutely necessary, which is no longer the case.  And restrictions — some of which have been drastic — are being rolled back in other countries as well.

German leaders agree to 3-step plan to lift most pandemic restrictions

Uncertainties however remain . The vaccination rate here in Germany is still low compared to other countries. Just 75% are fully vaccinated with at least two shots while 25% remain unvaccinated. And there seems to be no convincing them otherwise despite millions having been spent on ad campaigns. Many are also hesitant about getting their booster shots after contracting COVID despite being vaccinated.

It is right that Scholz announced that he intends to amend the Infection Protection Act by March 20 to allow for measures to be reintroduced swiftly should the situation worsen. Without that amendment, new measures would be impossible. The wearing of masks and hygiene rules are actually to stay in place even after March 20.

It is frustrating that some in the government still have their doubts. The Free Democrats dream of March 20 as a kind of "Freedom Day" and don't want any further restrictions at all. But the pressure to reach an agreement everyone can live with is high. 

Concerns over worker shortages

A second debate has now taken center stage and this one is even more difficult. It was actually a done deal that healthcare workers be vaccinated by March 15 if they want to keep their jobs. But the resistance was significant, leading Bavaria to say it won't be mandating vaccines for healthcare workers after all. The umbrella organization representing medical doctors here in Germany has also warned that if the mandate were to be implemented, worker shortages would be the result. Because while most health care workers are, in fact, vaccinated, some are not.  

What is even more uncertain is whether the government will be able to get a bill through parliament before Easter on a general vaccine mandate. The proposals on the table are confusing: Mandatory vaccinations for everyone over the age of 18, for everyone over the age of 50 or, in the end, for no one? Or, as the opposition Christian Democrats have put it, a gradual vaccine mandate depending on the state of the pandemic. What parliament actually wants right now is anyone's guess.

Yet regardless of the course it takes in the end, it will become increasingly difficult to argue in favor of a general vaccination requirement if, at the same time, almost all restrictions have already been dropped. It is quite possible that vaccine mandates will never be introduced.

Doctors treat a Covid patient in a German hospital
Doctors treat a COVID patient in a German hospital Image: Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images

Pandemic fatigue 

So this is the situation in mid-February 2022: Germany is looking forward to spring, to full soccer stadiums, to shopping sprees without restrictive rules, and to meeting up with friends and having fun. And politicians are betting that any next variant will be just as mild as omicron.

The experience of the past few months has shown that without compulsory vaccinations, the overall vaccination rate will pretty much stay where it is.

The risk that the pandemic will hit us again this fall, and with a variant more dangerous than omicron, shouldn't be underestimated. But for now, people are just tired of the pandemic after 24 long months and simply want to relax. And chancellor Olaf Scholz and Germany's 16 state premiers have had no other recourse but to acknowledge this.

This article has been translated from German. 

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau