Germany’s health minister expressed impatience Monday that the European Union was still waiting for its regulatory agency to approve a coronavirus vaccine, while other officials urged Germans to forgo Christmas shopping two days before a new hard lockdown will close schools and shut most stories.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and the governors of Germany’s 16 states agreed Sunday to step up the country’s lockdown measures beginning Wednesday and running to Jan. 10 to stop the exponential rise of COVID-19 cases. Merkel said existing restrictions imposed in November failed to significantly reduce the number of new infections. Germany has been hitting records of new daily infections and virus deaths in recent weeks.
Health Minister Jens Spahn said in a series of tweets that Germany, which has built up more than 400 vaccination centers and has activated about 10,000 doctors and medical staff to start mass vaccinations as early as Tuesday, was hamstrung by the lack of regulatory approval.
The vaccine developed by Germany’s BioNTech and American drugmaker Pfizer has been authorized for use in Britain, the United States, Canada and other countries, but it’s still waiting for approval by the European Medicines Agency, or EMA, and can therefore not be used in Germany yet.
The EMA has a Dec. 29 meeting on vaccines but Spahn said the agency’s assessment and approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine should “take place as quickly as possible.”
“This is also about the trust of the citizens in the European Union’s capacity to act,” Spahn wrote. “Every day that we can start sooner with the vaccinations lessens the suffering and protects those who are the most vulnerable.”
Spahn had previously said that going through EMA approval was the right path.
In recent weeks, hospitals across the country have repeatedly warned that they were reaching their limits in caring for COVID-19 patients and that staffing on intensive care units was becoming a problem. On Monday, 4,552 COVID-19 patients were being treated in ICU units, 52% of them on respirators.
On Monday, Germany’s central disease control center reported 16,362 new confirmed cases — about 4,000 more than a week before. The Robert Koch Institute reported 188 new deaths, bringing the overall death toll to 21,975.
The country’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, appealed to Germans on Monday to support and adhere to the new lockdown measures.
“The virus still has a tight grip on us,” Steinmeier said. “The situation is bitterly serious: thousands of death cases in one week and an infection scenario that threatens to spin out of control — there is no way we can avoid drastic measures.”
Others urged Germans to avoid last-minute panic buying.
“I wish and I hope that people will only buy what they really need, like groceries,” Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said. “The faster we get these infections under control, the better it is for everyone.”
In some states, including Saxony in eastern Germany and North Rhine-Westphalia in the west, schools already are closed or mandatory school attendance lifted so parents can keep their children at home.
Starting Wednesday, schools nationwide will be closed or will switch to home schooling; most non-food stores will be shuttered, as will businesses such as hairdressers that have so far been allowed to remain open. Restaurant takeout will still be permitted, but no eating or drinking can take place on site.
With the exception of Christmas, the number of people allowed to meet indoors will remain restricted to five, not including children under 14. The sale of fireworks traditionally used to celebrate New Year’s will also be banned, as will public outdoor gatherings on New Year’s Eve.
Top officials were also appealing to Christians to stay home and watch the traditional Christmas Mass online this year.
Michael Kretschmer, the governor of Saxony, which has been especially hard hit by the resurgence of the virus, told that German news agency dpa that this Christmas, for the first time in his life, he won’t be attending midnight Mass.
“I don’t need it for my belief and I think it is right if all of us hold off during this sensitive time,” Kretschmer said. ”Joseph and Mary were also on their own on the Holy Night.”