In Depth

UK vs. Germany: coronavirus responses compared

German authorities begin easing lockdown restrictions as Britons ordered to remain at home

Germany’s government is preparing to begin lifting lockdown measures after declaring the country’s coronavirus outbreak under control.

Crediting confinement measures imposed in response to an early surge in cases, Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Friday that Germany’s “infection numbers have sunk significantly, especially the relative day-by-day increase”.

According to Bonn-based news broadcaster Deutsche Welle, smaller shops are due to reopen from today, with some children set to return to school on 4 May. Other restrictions will remain in place, including a ban on gatherings of more than two people in public and on large public events.

Meanwhile, the UK government has extended Britain’s lockdown by another three weeks, as the nationwide total of confirmed coronavirus cases reaches more than 120,000.

So just how widely have the two countries responses to the global pandemic differed? 

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What did the UK do differently?

The Guardian reports that it was “abundantly clear to many academics and scientists” by early March that the approach being followed by the UK was different to those taken by other countries

From South Korea to Germany, governments invested heavily in expanding testing capacity from the first weeks of the outbreak - while the UK was still “going it alone” with a focus on developing so-called herd immunity, the newspaper says.

The Financial Times notes that the UK and Germany had entered the crisis operating in “lock-step”, “working together on virus tests, some of the first developed in the world”. But Germany’s labs ran at more than five times the NHS rate, completing 918,460 tests to Britain’s 163,194. 

By the beginning of April, Germany was testing around 500,000 of its citizens every week, as The Telegraph reported at the time. Meanwhile, Britain was lagging far behind, with only around 8,000 people tested per day.

And the government has since failed to meet its target of carrying out 25,000 coronavirus tests a day by mid-April, falling short by more than 5,000, according to ITV News

Speaking at a government press briefing earlier this month, the UK’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty said: “We all know that Germany got ahead in terms of its ability to do testing for the virus, and there’s a lot to learn from that.”

Did the UK waste time?

The UK government introduced a nationwide lockdown on the 23 March, many weeks after the country’s first cases were reported at the end of January, having initially resisted such measures amid fears over the likely economic damage.   

By contrast, the authorities in Berlin reacted more quickly after Germany’s first coronavirus infection was confirmed on 27 January, near Munich.

German schools and nurseries have been closed since 13 March and academic terms postponed. Borders to five neighbouring countries were closed on 15 March, with the German government announcing lockdown measures and a national curfew a week later.

Meanwhile, “Britain’s strategy twisted and turned, squandering precious time”, says the FT, which adds that the “shifting” tactics pursued by Boris Johnson have left the UK “behind on testing, critical care beds and ventilators”.

For example, on 17 March, Johnson called on Britain’s captains of industry to start building ventilators to supplement the country’s stock of 8,000. 

But Germany had already ordered 10,000 from an established manufacturer, adding to the nation’s existing 20,000 ventilators.

Germany’s response has been further bolstered by “decades of higher health spending, alongside an industrial base better able to scale-up for an emergency”, the newspaper says.

How will the UK leave lockdown?

The Guardian reports that widespread testing is seen by experts as a “precondition for lifting the UK lockdown”.

The FT adds that in contrast to Germany’s approach to easing social distancing restrictions, Downing Street’s plan is based on “a vaccine or antiviral treatments… or mass community testing”.

But with testing in the UK lagging behind that in many other European countries, and a vaccine still months away from development, Johnson’s government remains unable to offer a date for the lifting of its lockdown measures.

Experts are warning that loosening the restrictions too early could risk triggering a second wave of infections.

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