Coronavirus: Bavaria leads the way as Germany mulls nationwide lockdown

An almost empty terrace is seen in the centre of Munich in southern Germany, where activities came to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic, on March 20, 2020.
An almost empty terrace is seen in the centre of Munich in southern Germany, where activities came to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic, on March 20, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN (AFP) - Germany's largest state instituted a lockdown on Friday (March 20) to prevent coronavirus infections, the most extreme measure in the country so far, as the government prepares to discuss nationwide measures.

"From midnight tonight for a provisional period of two weeks, there will be fundamental restrictions on going out," Bavarian Premier Markus Soeder said.

"We are not locking Bavarians in but we are winding down public life almost completely," Mr Soeder said at a press conference, adding that restaurants would be closed and citizens would no longer be allowed to meet in groups outside.

"Fresh air is good for you, and going for a walk is still possible, but do so alone or with your family."

Visits to hospitals are now forbidden in most circumstances and Mr Soeder urged employers to allow people to work from home.

"The police will monitor and check all of this... Anyone who breaks the rules can expect huge fines."

Germany has introduced sweeping measures to restrict public life in the face of the coronavirus pandemic but has so far stopped short of imposing a full-scale lockdown such as the ones in France, Italy and Spain.

Mr Soeder said Bavarians would not need a permit to leave their homes, as they do in France, and claimed that other German states were now planning "the same or similar measures".

Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to meet regional state premiers to discuss a potential lockdown on Sunday, as concern grows that the public are not heeding government calls to stay home in the crisis.

Her chief of staff, Mr Helge Braun, warned on Friday that more stringent measures could be introduced if citizens continued to meet in public.

"We will look at the behaviour of the population this weekend. Saturday will be a decisive day," he said.

 
 
 

'Nationwide measures'

All bars, clubs, leisure centres and non-essential shops have already been shut across the country.

Many states have banned large gatherings and Dr Merkel and other leaders have called on the public to stay at home.

"We can only slow down this epidemic if everyone plays by the rules," urged an exasperated Professor Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for public health, on Friday.

Latest RKI figures show that there are now nearly 14,000 confirmed cases in Germany, a rise of almost 3,000 since the previous day, and Prof Wieler warned that the "curve will continue to rise".

Yet many people are continuing to meet in parks and on the streets, with some even organising so-called corona parties, prompting state premiers to warn that lockdown would be the next logical step.

"If people don't do it themselves, then we could make such decisions," said Mr Armin Laschet, leader of Germany's most populous state North-Rhine Westphalia, which has been worst hit by the virus so far.

Germany's federal system means that the decision to go into lockdown has so far been taken at the state or even the local level.