Germany will go into a hard lockdown from Wednesday, with all schools and shops closed, as it battles to control a big surge in coronavirus infections.
“Corona has got out of control — we are at five minutes to midnight,” Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria, told journalists on Sunday after a meeting between chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states.
The decision came as Germany reported a record of nearly 30,000 new infections and 598 deaths from Covid-19 on Friday.
Ms Merkel acknowledged that the restrictions would affect Christmas celebrations, but said the authorities were “forced to act”.
Under the decree, most shops will be closed from December 20 until January 10, as will hair salons, cosmetic studios, massage parlours and tattoo shops. Schools will remain closed during the period and companies have been encouraged to allow employees to work from home.
A government statement said German hospitals, especially intensive care wards, were under increasing strain due to the “high number of gravely ill corona patients”. A lockdown was needed to prevent the healthcare system becoming “overburdened”, it said.
A “lockdown-lite” imposed at the start of November — under which restaurants, bars, theatres and gyms were closed, but schools and shops remained open — briefly succeeded in stopping the exponential growth in cases. But infections started to surge again as people met friends and relatives in greater numbers ahead of the Christmas holiday.
Mr Söder described the coronavirus as a “catastrophe which affects us more than any crisis in the last 50 years”. He said authorities could no longer be halfhearted in their response but must act to prevent Germany becoming the “problem child of Europe”.
“Bergamo is closer than anyone thinks,” he said, in a reference to the images of military trucks taking away dozens of dead bodies from the north Italian city in the first wave of the pandemic.
Under the rules, private social gatherings of more than five people will be banned. These will be slightly relaxed between December 24 and 26 so families can spend Christmas together.
Public consumption of alcohol will also be proscribed from Wednesday. Leaders have recently raised concerns about the number of stalls in city centres selling mulled wine to large groups of people.
All public gatherings will be banned on New Year’s Eve, as will firework displays in public squares. The sale of fireworks before December 31 will also be prohibited and people will be strongly discouraged from setting off pyrotechnics “in view of the high risk of injury and the enormous strain on the health system”, according to a statement released after Sunday’s meeting. Religious services will be allowed, but congregations will be banned from singing.
The government also agreed financial compensation to companies affected by the shutdown, worth up to €500,000 per month for each business.