When is a lockdown not a lockdown? When it’s a German lockdown. A year after the country’s first Covid-19 restrictions, a linguistic misunderstanding may now determine who will be Germany’s next chancellor.
Last March, as Europe rolled out drastic restrictions to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, Germans embraced the term “lockdown” – but never its true meaning.
Unlike most EU neighbours, who have lived with long stretches at home, Germans have experienced no such blanket movement bans or curfews. Talk in relation to a travel radius restriction is vague: such a limit is discussed but rarely implemented or policed.
Pubs and restaurants remain closed, at least for dine-/drink-in, but many shops and services – supermarkets, pharmacies, hairdressers, book shops – remain open. People meet friends – serially rather than at once – and mass gatherings in parks are once again the norm in fine spring weather. Lockdowns don’t get much lighter than this.
But as Germany’s third wave of the virus rushes through the country, raising the risks associated with its fumbled vaccination campaign, politicians are struggling to find the right words to make the case for tighter restrictions. What, they want to know, is the linguistic escalation of lockdown?
In an attempt to address this, Armin Laschet, leader of Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has called for a “lockdown bridge”, a new term that has raised more questions than answers and represents a sharp U-turn on his most recent position.
As state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, he favoured lighter restrictions paired with blanket Covid-19 testing. He also bridled against what he called the “lockdown logic” of chancellor Angela Merkel, who just more than a week ago pushed for a hard lockdown in the hope of breaking the third wave.
Plans for an extended Easter shutdown were dropped – too last-minute, too much confusion over implementation – but the idea of stricter measures hasn’t gone away.
Instead, Bavaria’s minister-president Markus Söder has come out in favour of a tougher lockdown stance, and greater, centralised powers for restrictions in the hands of Merkel’s federal government in Berlin.
That dovetailed with a public television survey late last week that found just one in five Germans were happy with the current pandemic management, as overseen jointly between Berlin and the 16 federal states, or Länder. Meanwhile, support for tough measures has reached a record high of 48 per cent, up 28 points in a month.
On Monday, Laschet joined their number, calling for tougher restrictions as Germany’s Covid-19 incidence rate sank slightly to 123 new cases per 100,000 of population over seven days.
“My proposal is about a big effort to bring this rate considerably below 100,” he then said on Tuesday morning breakfast television.
But he has caused confusion over where exactly he proposes tightening up, prompting one newspaper to ask: “A lockdown bridge to where?”
Similar doubts surround the duration of such action: Laschet suggested it last until “a large proportion of the population is vaccinated”. This could be in two or three weeks, he said, when Germany can reach a first-dose vaccination rate of 20 to 30 per cent.
That raised eyebrows given how, while some 60 per cent of UK citizens have received at least one dose, just 12 per cent of Germans have received a first jab.
Germany’s vaccine rollout remains plagued by logistical problems: many vaccination centres closed for the Easter weekend and two in Berlin closed temporarily on Tuesday due to delayed vaccine deliveries. Meanwhile, new data shows that 4.6 million vaccine doses delivered to Germany have yet to be administered, 23 per cent of the total delivered to date.
A spokesman for Merkel agreed on Tuesday that “a further effort is required” to cut infection rates. Without mentioning the CDU leader, the spokesman called for “clarity on how to get there” in the coming days.
Laschet’s “lockdown bridge” has received a mixed reception among CDU state leaders, and outright rejection among leaders of the centre-left Social Democratic Party.
Above all, whether on lockdowns or in polls, Laschet is playing catch-up with Söder. The two will agree in the coming weeks which of them will be the centre-right’s lead candidate for the 2021 federal election. A new poll on Tuesday suggested almost half of Germans would favour Söder, with just 14 per cent for Laschet.