Tomorrow, Monday, 01 June, the British government will start easing the lockdown. In British society, there has been a heated debate about the pros and cons of this step. Does it come too soon? Is it just right? Should the lockdown continue? Many people, particularly parents, think it is too soon to ease the lockdown and reopen schools and nurseries. There is a lot of fear and anxiety among many British people with regard to the easing of the lockdown. And it is not difficult to understand that. I am not sure if there is any confidence left in the government’s handling of the crisis. From the very beginning, the government has reacted to the pandemic in an incredibly incompetent, careless and ignorant way. And what is even more incredible. The government’s attitude does not seem to have changed. The government continues to be as unprepared, chaotic and rudderless as two months ago.
Although I live in the UK, I have stopped looking for guidance from the British government or the British media on how I should behave in this crisis. Instead, for some time now I have sought information on the virus, the developments around the virus and how to most sensibly behave during this crisis from the German media and the German government. Not only has the German government reacted in a much more sensible, competent and enlightened way to the pandemic (led and informed by leading German scientists). The German government also eased the lockdown several weeks ago. Given Germany’s federal system, each Bundesland adopted slightly different guidelines on how citizens should navigate through the different stages of the easing of the lockdown.
For instance, the city of Berlin already started easing the lockdown one month ago. On 27 April, schools started reopening; on 30 April, playgrounds were reopened; on 4 May, museums and libraries opened their doors; and on 9 May, shops were allowed to welcome back customers. Bavaria (the Bundesland where my parents live), however, located in the south of Germany, was more cautious. There, the general lockdown was only lifted on 6 May, when hair salons and barbershops were allowed to reopen. On 11 May, all other shops as well as driving schools, music schools, museums, libraries, schools and nurseries reopened.
Despite these regional differences, major events such as concerts or beer festivals remain banned in the whole country until at least 31 August. Some other major events which would have taken place in the autumn will not take place either, such as Munich’s world-famous Oktoberfest or the annual Berlin Marathon. The Bundesliga, however, German’s football league, is running again with so-called Geisterspiele (ghost games) in empty stadiums.
The easing of the lockdown and the return to some normality has taken place without the introduction of a tracking app. Such an app (with a decentralised system) is scheduled to be introduced by mid-June. In place of an app, people are required to fill in a paper form with their address and telephone number, when they go to the hairdresser, for example.
There have, of course, been heated debates in Germany over all these different steps. How can it not be? But so far, Germany’s approach seems to have worked very well. Although over the last few weeks new infections have occurred, and some towns have become new Corona hotspots, the overall infection and death rates are steadily declining. And in the face of about 183,000 infections, the death rate with about 8,600 continues to be very low.
Evidently, the situation in the UK is a very different one: the highest number of (confirmed) infections in Europe (the fourth-highest worldwide); the highest number of deaths in Europe (the second-highest number worldwide). And a government which has not been up to the task since the pandemic has arrived in the country.
Despite different guidelines in Germany’s different Bundesländer, there is one rule which has to be followed no matter in which Bundesland you live. Since 29 April, people have been required to wear face masks when shopping and using public transport. Once again, the situation in the UK is a very different one. Still today, one day before the easing of the lockdown, only a tiny minority of people in Britain wear face masks. I went to my local post office twice over the last two weeks, and each time I was the only one with a face mask. In my local supermarket, I am usually one of the very few people with a face mask. I was divided in my opinion about the use of face masks. There is still no conclusive evidence on the benefits of wearing a face mask. The WHO, for example, does not recommend wearing a face mask when you are healthy except when you take care of a person with COVID-19.
Well, the situation in Germany convinced me that wearing a face mask does make lots of sense, as it has probably contributed to the steady decline in the number of infections in the country. This is why several weeks ago I started wearing a face mask when I go shopping or wherever I am confronted with a larger group of people (in the post office, for example). The official argument in the UK against wearing face masks was related to the scarcity of surgical face masks in the country. But the point is that you do not need a surgical face mask. I and my wife purchased our reusable cloth face masks online (made in the EU). My family in Germany made their own facemasks. There are lots of guidelines on how to do that, even if you do not happen to have a sewing machine at home. In other words, it is easily possible for everyone in a society to get access to face masks without putting at risk the supply of surgical face masks for professional health workers.
Tomorrow, Monday, 1 June, the UK government will start easing the lockdown. Will the easing of the lockdown be similarly successful as in Germany? I have a strange feeling that this will not be the case. However, I strongly hope that I am wrong.