As Britain’s Covid-19 inquiry drags on, it’s useful to look at how other countries responded to the pandemic. Germany is a comparable one. Statistics show Germany achieved a respectably, but not dramatically, better performance than the UK’s. Travelling with a Cambridge church group to our German twin city of Heidelberg, I found that the host couple for my wife and me included a retired virologist. Prof Rainer Zawatzky has kept a close eye on the progress of Covid-19, and let me interview him during a tram journey.
Aidan: What did you think was the best and the worst of Germany’s response to Covid-19?
Rainer: The worst was the closing of the schools, especially elementary schools. Many children have fallen quite a long way behind. But the thing that I really appreciated was the rapid availability of tests. And of course, the ultra rapid development of a vaccine, it was really tremendous how this was achieved.
Friends with Covid-19, measures against it
A: How many in your circle had Covid-19?
R: Everyone! I don’t know of anyone that didn’t have it. In my family, everyone had it. But always with mild consequences.
A: Were there any measures adopted during Covid-19, either by Germany as a nation or by you personally, that have become permanent?
R: People are generally aware of the high transmission rate, especially during the cold season, when they are with a lot of people. I use public transport nearly daily. And I wonder if we will encounter the same situation this winter, when the incidence rates will increase again.
How Covid-19 affected where one could go
A: Where were you able to go during Covid-19?
R: From March 2020 till February 22, we were very restricted. We did take a summer holiday in 2021, but with many restrictions, wearing masks whenever we went into houses or closed places. So we aimed to spend most of the time outside, which is normal during a summer holiday. We avoided going to places where lots of people gathered, and of course, all family celebrations were more or less cancelled. There were no birthday celebrations, nothing. And so we didn’t leave the house very often.
A: The places you could get to during Covid-19 – how do you feel about them now?
R: We were cycling, which was the best way to spend our holidays. We had to have accommodation. But most of the time we were outside. I still think that’s the best way to reduce transmission. In 2022 we took our first journey. We flew to Los Angeles to see our daughter. The restrictions were very strict. We had to provide Covid-19 tests done within the previous 24 hours at the airport, and we had to provide all our vaccination documentation, as we did every time we wanted to leave a country. Between 2020 and 2022, we never went abroad.
A: How did the churches respond to Covid-19?
R: During the first weeks of Covid-19, there were no services at all. If they took place, it was via Zoom. Later on, only three [spaced out] pews were available to sit down. The others were cordoned off. You only were allowed to sit together if you were from the same family. Otherwise you had to remain a distance of two metres from the next person. Our church went far beyond the restrictions applied by the government. It’s mostly older people who go to church and they are more vulnerable. This was the reasoning behind it.
Is Covid-19 over now?
A: Do you see Covid-19 as being over? How would you describe the situation that you have, from the point of view of a virologist?
R: I don’t think it is over, but Covid-19 will now become one of the endemic infections that we will see every year. The number of cases is currently increasing slightly, though not very dramatically because the weather is still mild. As soon as weather becomes colder and humid, we would expect transmission rates to increase again. But we now have a base-level of immunity in the whole population, which was not the case three years ago. The number of severe cases will be restricted to people that already have health problems – obese people, older people, diabetic people, people with cardiovascular diseases. But otherwise, I think the frightening time of Covid-19 is over.
A: Is there anything you’d particularly like to tell our readers?
R: Get vaccinated! The coronavirus is producing a lot of mutations. The terrible consequences we had three years ago will not show up again. But we have to be careful to get vaccinated on a yearly basis – it really is essential. The side effects are moderate. Everyone should be aware of protecting themselves and others by being vaccinated.
Covid-19 in Germany and the UK – some numbers
We were at our Brückenstraße destination. My mobile phone coped well with recording Rainer over the noise of the tram and its announcements.
His anecdotal account of Covid-19’s effect on his family (everyone got it, but no one suffered serious consequences) is a pale shadow of Germany’s national statistics. But it has the same shape. More Germans than Britons caught the virus, but fewer Germans died. And those facts are true both in absolute terms and as percentages of the populations
So yes, I’m following Rainer’s advice to get vaccinated annually as my part in keeping Covid-19 under control.
Please note covid vaccinations in the UK are now only available to over 65s and people in certain eligible groups. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.