Germany’s virus infection rate driven higher by local outbreaks

BERLIN • Germany’s coronavirus infection rate jumped as more than 1,300 people working at a slaughterhouse tested positive.

According to the latest data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the so-called reproduction factor rose to 2.88 on Sunday. That is well above the government’s target of one and reflects a heightened risk of the disease flaring up again more widely in the country.

Outbreaks at the meat plant near the city of Guetersloh, which was closed last week, and in apartment blocks in Goettingen are raising concerns about Germany’s decision to ease restrictions and get the country back to a degree of normality. The weekend was marked by demonstrations in both hotspots as participants protested against contact restrictions applied by local authorities.

“Meat companies have been able to circumvent stricter rules on working conditions using subcontractors,” said German Labor Minister Hubertus Heil in an interview with ARD television yesterday. Heil said he would like new legislation, due to take effect in January 2021, to be brought forward but the government needs to make sure it is legally watertight.

“Obviously rules have not been respected,” Heil said. “Under the conditions of the pandemic, this exploitation of workers has become a general health risk and can no longer be tolerated.”

Outbreaks at Europe’s meat plants aren’t confined to Germany, with a few UK factories also reporting infections last week. That underlines the risk to the industry, which often employs migrant workers who may also commute together to work and share accommodation.

Federal and state politicians are seeking to play down any likelihood that blanket lockdown restrictions may return. So far, authorities have preferred to isolate individual properties such as an apartment block in Berlin’s Neukoelln district that were hit by a spate of infections.

By most measures, Germany has handled the health crisis relatively well. The country implemented an aggressive testing programme that helped keep casualties relatively low in Europe’s most populous state. Last week, it unveiled a tracing application that, according to Health Minister Jens Spahn, would help break infection chains and allow the country to manage the return to normality more quickly. So far, 11.8 million people have downloaded the app.

According to data from Johns Hopkins University, there were 602 new infections in Germany in the last 24 hours through yesterday morning, bringing the total to more than 191,000. The current infection rate means that out of 100 people who are infected, a further 288 people are likely to contract the virus.

Since case numbers in Germany are generally low, local outbreaks have a relatively strong influence on the R-value, according to RKI. “Further developments need to be monitored closely during the upcoming days, especially in regard to whether case numbers are increasing outside of outbreak contexts,” the organisation said.

The RKI also provides a seven-day R-value, which compensates for fluctuations. That value was 2.03 on Sunday, up from 1.55 the previous day. — Bloomberg