Germany Targets Working Life to Regain Control of Covid Outbreak

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Germany is looking at reducing the number of people going to the office as Europe’s largest economy seeks to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Fewer German employers are offering work-from-home options than during the initial wave in March and April, and companies will need to step up, Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller said Tuesday ahead of talks between Chancellor Angela Merkel and state premiers to discuss Germany’s pandemic restrictions. They’re widely expected to prolong the country’s hard lockdown until at least mid-February amid fears about faster-spreading variants of the virus.

“A very aggressive mutation is coming, and we need to react,” Mueller said in an interview with ARD television. Working life is the main target for new measures, “and that really hurts because we know the situation the companies are in,” said Mueller, who currently chairs the conference of Germany’s 16 state premiers.

The call between Merkel and the regional leaders was brought forward by nearly a week after the chancellor warned of the risks posed by variants that can spread more quickly. Despite increasingly stringent curbs -- including closing schools and non-essential shops and limiting private gatherings -- the contagion rate is nearly triple a government target.

Germany Targets Working Life to Regain Control of Covid Outbreak

While infections have been receding in recent days, authorities are worried about faster-spreading strains of the disease. Plans under discussion include curfews in hard-hit areas and requiring medical masks on public transport, according to Mueller. The measures have been controversial, and the talks are likely to be contentious.

With regional authorities responsible for health policy under Germany’s federal system, the discussions are a critical part of the country’s fight against the pandemic. State leaders have regularly balked at Merkel’s tougher stance, and resistance could grow with officials wary of voter dissatisfaction ahead of state elections in March.

Extended lockdowns are likely to cause the German economy to shrink in the first three months of the year, with Bloomberg Economics forecasting a 3% contraction before a rebound starts in the second quarter.

Read more on Bloomberg Economics’ outlook for the German economy

The country has still fared relatively well compared with its European peers, mainly due to extensive fiscal support and a large manufacturing sector that is less exposed to restrictions than shops and restaurants.

Europe has emerged as a global hot spot for the virus, with more than 401,000 fatalities and nearly 17 million infections. The region’s leaders are on high alert after more contagious variants of the disease were detected in Britain, Ireland and South Africa.

To reduce contact between people, German companies may now be required to show why staff can’t perform their work remotely, putting more pressure on employers to allow home-office whenever possible, Mueller said.

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said Tuesday that “all measures are on the table,” including a night-time curfew similar to the one imposed in countries like France.

“One thing is clear: we will have to go a step further so that we can get the current initial successes over the finishing line,” Altmaier said in an interview with RTL/ntv television.

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