Germany is on the verge of imposing new coronavirus restrictions after a record rise in infections.
Contacts are to be reduced to a maximum of two households, and no more than 10 people, the chancellor, Angela Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states decided during an emergency video conference.
Merkel said the country had to act immediately to stop the spread of the virus. “If the speed of this infection stays like it is, within weeks the system will be at the limits of its capacity. We need to act and immediately,” she said.
The measures, which will be active from Monday and last until the end of November, include advising Germans to avoid “unnecessary, private journeys”, including visiting relatives.
Restaurants, bars, leisure facilities and cultural institutes including opera houses and theatres will face orders to close, while schools and nurseries are expected to remain open, as well as the majority of businesses and work places. Shops and hairdressers will also be allowed to stay open.
The measures, which are to be reviewed after two weeks, are the most dramatic in months to tackle an exponential rise in infections. Almost 15,000 new infections over a 24-hour period were registered on Wednesday morning, more than double from a week ago.
Germany had been considered relatively successful in its fight against the pandemic compared with many other countries in Europe, with a relatively low death rate of just over 10,000.
But in recent weeks, parts of the country’s test-and-trace system have increasingly been overwhelmed. In Berlin, which has for several weeks been considered a coronavirus hotspot, the system is said to have all but collapsed, and people who tested positive have been asked to reach out to contacts themselves.
Berlin’s mayor, Michael Müller, said the new measures marked a “hard and bitter day” for Germany.
Earlier, Merkel had said the the steps were necessary to tackle a situation that was in danger of spiralling out of control. New infections in Germany are doubling every seven to eight days, while the number of occupied intensive care beds has doubled every 10 days. “We only need the doubling another four times and then the system is finished,” she said.
Merkel told the state leaders that “every day counts”, arguing that the more they did now, “the more time we buy for the Christmas holidays”.
State leaders have often been reluctant to recognise the urgency of the situation, and last month Merkel was accused of alarmism after suggesting infections could be at more than 19,000 a day by Christmas. But that figure is likely to be reached much sooner.
The effect of the new measures on the health system are not expected to be fully evident for 30 days.
Olaf Scholz, the finance minister, announced that the government would once again dip into the country’s tax revenues to help ease the impact on businesses forced to close.
He said small firms would be compensated with up to 75% of their revenue for the same time last year, for the period they were forced to close, while bigger businesses should receive up to 70% from the state. It is estimated the month-long lockdown will cost the state between €7bn and €10bn.
In Berlin, thousands of people from the arts and hospitality industries took to the streets to protest against what they see as the neglect of their sectors, amid a growing sense of anger over political mismanagement.
Flamenco dancers, DJs, hoteliers and waiters were among those who marched through the government quarter calling on the leaders to heed their appeal for financial help.
The culture minister, Monika Grütters, said the billions of euros that had already been pumped into aiding the arts would have to be considerably increased.
With private gatherings reduced to a maximum of just two households, and no more than 10 people, a debate was triggered over just how the rules would be controlled.
The interior minister Horst Seehofer, said he was in favour of random police checks to ensure people were sticking to limited gatherings within the home. The measures have been widely referred to as a “lockdown lite”, though the government has been reluctant to refer to them as such, speaking instead of a “wave break”.