German coalition (still) split on how to deal with COVID

BERLIN — Germans have two fears for the return of cold weather this fall: a lack of gas to heat homes and a fresh surge in coronavirus infections.

“We must not and cannot afford to go into the fall unprepared or underprepared for a third time, so we will do whatever it takes to address the situation,” Health Minister Karl Lauterbach told the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, on Thursday.

He spoke during a debate on infection-protection law amendments aimed at balancing pandemic precautions with concerns over personal freedom that have divided German politicians, including within the coalition government.

Lauterbach is convinced any complacency over COVID-19 is misplaced. “We are currently in a summer wave that was predicted, the fall will be difficult and the reasons are already known,” he warned. “We will be wrestling with a BA.5 variant that is now dominating the infection scene.”

The minister’s remarks came days after the publication of a report evaluating the efficacy of coronavirus measures that has reignited a fight within the government between the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and their bigger coalition partners, the Greens and Lauterbach’s Social Democrats (SPD).

The report reviewed a range of measures taken since early 2020. It concluded that some — like the proper wearing of masks — helped contain the virus and flatten infection curves, while the efficacy of others, such as school closures, “remains open despite biological plausibility and numerous studies.”

Lauterbach wants to keep on high alert against any COVID resurgence. He cautions that a return to tough measures — such as school closures — should not be ruled out categorically, even if they are unlikely to be needed.

Begging to differ

That puts him at odds with most FDP lawmakers, including Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger. She weighed into the debate on Twitter this week to warn of the impact of shutting classrooms again.

“The consequences of the school closures were borne by the students: loneliness, learning deficits, mental problems. A mistake we must not repeat,” she wrote. “There must be no more nationwide school closures.”

Separately, Stark-Watzinger’s ministry tweeted to point out that the much fought-over report did not prove that school closures are efficient in preventing the spread of COVID-19. “It’s dramatic that the school closures have immense consequences, but no precise effect on the fight against the pandemic can be certified,” the ministry said, quoting Stark-Watzinger.

The report’s authors defended it against criticism, including from Lauterbach, who cautioned it could serve as a brake on the fight to prevent the spread of COVID.

Hendrick Streeck, virologist at the University of Bonn and a prominent voice in Germany’s coronavirus debate, complained that after “the commission was appointed, worked and delivered on time … on the day of delivery, it has to read from leading politicians that ‘everything was already known’ and that the report should not be a ‘brake.'”

Writing in a Die Zeit op-ed, Streeck, who was part of the commission tasked with writing the report, said it made concrete statements on the usefulness of masks and the doubtful impact of school closures, about which there is insufficient data.

Streeck and the op-ed’s co-authors warned that politics must not exploit science. They said the report had been conducted under time pressure and faced data limitations.

“In the short time available and due to lack of resources, not all 200,000 existing studies on COVID could be evaluated. And even this would have been limited for some of the key questions because of their comprehensive nature and thus the lack of comparative observations,” he wrote.

Lauterbach appeared to agree in Thursday’s Bundestag debate, promising to improve the data environment. “It’s sad that after two years we still do not get good daily data,” he said.