Kate Connolly, Berlin
Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, (RKI) the government’s disease control agency, medics and epidemiologists warned on Wednesday that the coronavirus disease was in danger of spiralling out of control.
Jens Spahn, the health minister, urged Germans to show patience, while Lothar Wieler, head of the RKI, said that the high death toll was most likely due to delayed reporting of statistics over the Christmas holidays.
But he said the rate – 167 more than a week ago, which brings the overall death toll to over 32,000 – was still extremely high. The vast majority of deaths are not taking place in hospitals, but care homes, he said.
More than a quarter or 5642 ICU beds in Germany are occupied by coronavirus patients, 3,078 of whom are on ventilators. There are just over 4,700 unoccupied ICU beds, and almost 11,000 in reserve. However, medical staff are already said to be working to capacity.
Around 78,000 Germans had received a vaccination by Wednesday lunchtime and Spahn said the country was on track to have 1.3m doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine by the end of the year as well as 1.5-2m doses of the Moderna vaccine, which is expected to be approved in the EU next week, in the first quarter of 2021. The Astra/Zeneca vaccine is still awaiting approval.
Under pressure to explain bottlenecks and delays in Germany’s vaccine programme, Spahn warned that coronavirus vaccines were inevitably scarce throughout the world at the start of their roll out, but he expected a rapid increase as vaccine producers, such as BioNTech – which is due to open a new factory in February – upped production over the coming weeks.
Spahn said that Matt Hancock, the UK’s health minister, had told him in a phone call on Wednesday morning he expected Britain to have achieved herd immunity through its vaccination programme by the spring.
Spahn said he had been bombarded with complaints from Germans via letter and email over Germany’s decision to “take a European approach” to allow the European Union’s 27 members equal access to the vaccine. “People have said ‘this is a German vaccine, why can’t we have it first?’,” he said referring to the Mainz-based biotechnology company BioNTech which developed the first approved vaccine.
He defended his decision in June, along with his counterparts in the Netherlands, France and Italy, “to say it was not about each to his own, but all of us together”. As a result, he said: “Last Sunday, when vaccination began in Germany, it also started in Croatia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Portugal … in contrast to when a new medicine usually comes on the market and it is available in Germany immediately but can take years for it to be available in other countries. We said we didn’t want this (with the vaccine).”
Germany’s current lockdown, in which the closure of all but non-essential shops along with schools and nurseries has been ordered until 10 January, is expected to be extended. A meeting of chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states on 5 January is expected to decide on the terms of an extension.
Whilst the majority of Germans appear to have stuck to advice to hold a low-key Christmas, reducing their contacts and travel to a minimum, politicians have voiced concern over the new year celebrations, which are usually very public and rowdy, involving private firework displays on streets and squares. Although firework sales have been banned and many public areas declared out of bounds, police chiefs have said they expect large crowds to gather. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of pyrotechnics being purchased in neighbouring Poland by Germans.
“I’m really very concerned about celebrations due to take place at the new year. This must be urgently prevented,” Tobias Hans, the leader of the state of Saarland, told the broadcaster RTL.