Angela Merkel has agreed with the leaders of Germany’s 16 federal states to extend and tighten measures against coronavirus until at least 20 December – and they are likely to extend them into January, she said late on Wednesday.
“This is absolutely not the time to sound the all-clear,” she told journalists, after the number of deaths from the virus reached a daily record.
However, rules will be eased over the Christmas holidays to let families and friends celebrate together.
Germany imposed a month-long “lockdown lite” on 2 November to rein in a second wave that is sweeping much of Europe. Bars and restaurants are closed but schools and shops remain open.
From 1 December, private gatherings will be limited to five people. Over Christmas, that number will rise to 10, not counting children, though Wednesday’s decisions included an appeal to avoid social contact for a week before family visits.
“This must not be a lonely Christmas for people in vulnerable groups,” she said.
People will be actively encouraged to do their Christmas shopping midweek to avoid crowding. Masks are now also expected to be worn outside shops where long queues are expected to form in the run-up to Christmas and the new year, as well as in car parks. In schools, obligatory mask wearing is to be introduced for school pupils from the seventh grade (12-13 years) upwards.
The detonation of fireworks, a mainstay of German new year celebrations, is to be banned in public places, in order to reduce mass gatherings and in the hope of lessening the burden on hospitals, which typically have to deal with a large number of burn wounds in connection with the festivities. A major fireworks display at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin is to be cancelled. Individual town and city councils will be responsible for deciding precisely where the ban will apply.
Merkel and the state leaders also agreed to try to introduce a Europe-wide ban on skiing holidays until 10 January, despite resistance from tourism industry figureheads.
“I will say this openly that it won’t be easy, but we will try,” Merkel said.
Last winter, skiers in Austria and Italy in particular are believed to have been largely responsible for the initial spread of the virus across the continent.
The meeting took place as Germany recorded its highest daily death rate, which rose by 410 in 24 hours. Almost 14,800 people have died from the virus. The registered infection rate appears to be stabilising, with 18,633 new infections since Tuesday.
But it is still too high if the health system is going to cope at least into next spring, by which time the effects of a vaccination programme are expected to have made an impact on the spread of the virus.
“The exponential growth of infection numbers has been stopped, the steep curve has been turned into a flattened curve,” Merkel said. “But we cannot be content with this partial success.”
An appeal is expected to be made to employers to allow employees, where possible, to work from home in the run-up to Christmas and into the start of the new year.
But if schools were forced to close early there is still a lack of clarity over the legal rights of employees who cannot work from home but would have to take time off for childcare.
According to a survey by the polling institute Civey, a majority of Germans support the proposals to reduce private gatherings to a maximum of 10 people. A total of 57% were in favour of the government setting a limit, while 36.5% said it was inappropriate for the state to meddle in private gatherings.
From 1 December, private gatherings will be limited to five people from two households – down from 10 people currently, though children are exempted from the new rule.
Trains will also expand their seating capacity, in order to better ensure distancing between passengers.