Restrictions to stem the spread of coronavirus are being lifted across Germany’s 16 states. But the crisis has remained relatively stable. Why? And is there still the risk of a second wave of infections?

When the pandemic hit, and residents in Germany were told not to leave their homes unless it was for essential reasons, such as exercise or to buy food. But in the last month the lockdown rules have been relaxed, and we are now allowed to carry out previously forbidden activities – like relaxing in a cafe – although rules, such as the 1.5 metre distance from others, do apply.  So far, this has not led to a large increase in new infections, although scientists feared that could happen.

There are about 300 to 600 new daily coronavirus cases in the last few days. It’s a huge drop compared to the beginning of April when about 6,000 people in Germany were contracting coronavirus on a daily basis.

So why is the situation stable despite the restrictions being eased?

Importance of R number

The so-called reproduction rate (known as R0) plays an important role in assessing the occurrence of infection. It indicates how many people a person with coronavirus goes on to infect on average. 

If it remains below 1, the epidemic slowly dies down. At the beginning of March, the RKI estimated this figure to be around 3: one person with the virus infected an average of three other  people.

However, even before the restrictions were loosened, this number had already dropped to 1. It has been said that this was down to people’s behaviour changing before the rules came into force – less people were going out out of fear of catching the virus.

Perhaps they had also stopped hugging friends – and hand washing across the population was becoming more frequent and thorough. 

Even though the measures have been loosened, many people in Germany are still erring on the side of caution, limiting their contact to people and going to the shops less, for example. This is all helping to keep the reproductive number under 1.

Social distancing ‘absolutely crucial

The role of the residents have been played very well. One possible explanation is that the increased awareness of the population has led to a significant decrease in transmission by persons with symptoms.

So only people who have no symptoms at all (and are therefore unaware they have it) are transmitting the virus. As a result, the reproductive rate is lower.

According to the RKI, the R0 has been between 0.7 and 0.8 in the past few days, which means that on average one person infects less than one other. 

This has allowed Germany to loosen the contact restrictions. Now up to 10 people or members of two households can meet (although 1.5 metre distance has to be maintained, excluding families and same households).

Nevertheless, urging people to cut contact through the lockdown was important in order to quickly reduce the number of infections. If Germany had introduced the coronavirus restrictions later or less strictly, there would now be much higher infection rates. 

The Local that social distancing measures had been – and continue to be “absolutely crucial” in reducing the number of infections.

Mask obligation ‘effective’

According to virologist Brinkmann, compulsory masks have also had an effect.

“After opening the first stores, you could see that the R number rose slightly. After the compulsory mask (obligation was introduced), it went down again,” she said.

The first shops were allowed to open after shutdown from April 20th. About a week later, German states made it compulsory to wear face masks in shops and on public transport.

‘Break the first wave’

Virologist Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit believes there are three main reasons for the current low rate of infection: banning large events (in effect until August 31st), the hygiene rules and the observance of the distance rules.

Some other measures do not have a huge impact, he says. For example, shops are not known to be a hotspot where the virus tends to spread so the focus does not need to be on their closures.

The head of virus diagnostics at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine also said that the strict restrictions in March were necessary.

“It was important to break the first wave, and we succeeded,” Schmidt-Chanasit said. 

Germany needed to put in the strict measures so it could gradually learn how and which rules it could loosen after getting the number of infections down.