Germany clamps down on New Year’s parties to tame omicron

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Germany announced new restrictions on Tuesday that will begin after Christmas to slow the spread of the new omicron variant, rules that will fall short of a full lockdown but will include contact restrictions even for vaccinated people.

“I can understand anyone who doesn’t want to hear about the coronavirus, mutations and new virus variants,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz said at a press conference on Tuesday evening. “But we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to this next wave.”

Among the new rules are limiting private gatherings to 10 people, closing nightclubs nationwide and having large events like football matches held without an in-person audience. The restrictions will go into effect nationwide from 28 December, although states can implement the measures sooner.

Scholz said the government decided to wait until after Christmas to implement new national restrictions because family-focused holidays such as Christmas and Easter “have not proven to be major drivers of the pandemic.” But he said restrictions on New Year’s celebrations are necessary to keep Germany’s health system from being overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases.

“This is no longer the time for parties and social evenings in big groups,” Scholz said.

Scholz and Germany’s 16 state governors agreed on the new restrictions at a meeting on Tuesday, after the government’s new panel of experts called for action to be taken within days nationwide because the omicron variant is racing across Europe.

Scholz and the state governors will meet again on 7 January to discuss whether the measures should be continued or even tightened.

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Hours before the meeting, the national disease control centre called on Twitter for “maximum contact restrictions” starting immediately and lasting until mid-January, and for Germans to reduce their holiday travel “to the absolutely necessary.”

One state, Hamburg, already moved on Tuesday to impose restrictions starting on Christmas Eve. There will be a 10-person limit on private meetings and dance events will be banned, effectively closing nightclubs. Restaurants and bars in the state will have to close at 11 p.m. — except on New Year’s Eve, when they can stay open until 1 a.m.

Restrictions already in place in Germany target mainly the unvaccinated, with proof of vaccination or recovery required to enter nonessential stores. Also, the sale of New Year fireworks has been banned nationwide.

Scholz said the German government is also trying to speed up its booster vaccine campaign, aiming to give out an additional 30 million shots by the end of January by keeping some vaccination centers open over the holidays.

“Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate remains our goal,” Scholz said. “The coronavirus doesn’t take a Christmas break.”

But authorities remain dissatisfied that only 70.4% of Germany’s population has been fully vaccinated and 32.6% have received boosters.

Germany’s infection rate is, for now, drifting downward slowly. On Tuesday, the disease control centre recorded 306.4 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days, down from 375 a week earlier, with 23,428 new daily cases.

However, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has warned that Germany faces “a massive fifth wave” of infections because of omicron, which he says can’t realistically be prevented.

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The disease control centre said Monday that people who have recovered or have been fully vaccinated now face a “high” risk of infection, while it is “moderate” for those who have received a booster. It said the risk of getting COVID-19 is “very high” for the unvaccinated.

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