German unemployment fell slightly in September, official data showed Wednesday, as Europe’s largest economy showed further signs of recovery following the initial hit from the coronavirus pandemic.
The seasonally adjusted jobless rate ticked down to 6.3 percent in September, from 6.4 percent in August, the BA federal labour agency said.
“The impact of the corona pandemic on the labour market is still clearly visible. However, there are slight signs of improvement,” said the BA’s Daniel Terzenbach.
Coronavirus lockdowns brought the economy to a halt initially but as factories and businesses have returned to work, sentiment has improved.
Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said recently that Germany was on track for a “V-shaped” recovery, signalling a strong upswing in the economy after a considerable decline in earlier in the year.
Government-backed short-time work schemes, called “Kurzarbeit” in German, have softened the blow, saving hundreds of thousands of jobs.
The number of people in short-time work fell in September to 4.2 million from a peak in April of 5.95 million, the BA agency said, although both numbers are considerably higher than at the height of the financial crash in 2009.
Before the coronavirus struck, German joblessness had hovered at a record low of around five percent.
But prospects may darken as the country moves into the colder autumn and winter months and fears grow about a recent uptick in coronavirus cases.
Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday announced new measures to tackle the increase, including restrictions on parties and family gatherings.
“Unemployment should fall by the end of the year,” said Fritzi Koehler-Geib, economist at Germany’s public investment bank KfW.
“However, we can assume that the number of infections will rise again in the autumn. This could lead to a further slowdown in the economic recovery.”
Germany, the current head of the European Union, will discuss possible sanctions against Russia over the poisoning of Alexei Navalny if the Kremlin does not provide an explanation soon, its foreign minister said Sunday.
Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner Navalny fell ill on a flight last month and was treated in a Siberian hospital before being evacuated to Berlin.
Germany said last week there was “unequivocal evidence” that President Vladimir Putin’s top foe had been poisoned using Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok.
“We have high expectations of the Russian government to solve this serious crime,” Heiko Maas told German daily Bild. “If the government has nothing to do with the attack, then it is in its own interest to back this up with facts.”
If Russia does not help clarify what happened “in the coming days”, Germany will be compelled to “discuss a response with our allies,” Maas said.
The crime against Navalny was a violation of the international Chemical Weapons Convention and there must be an appropriate response, he said. “When we think about sanctions, they should be as targeted as possible.”
Western leaders and many Russians have expressed horror at what Navalny’s allies say is the first known use of chemical weapons against a high-profile opposition leader on Russian soil.
The Kremlin has denied responsibility for the attack and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that Germany is yet to share any findings with Moscow’s prosecutors.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Sunday accused Germany of stalling efforts to probe the Navalny case.
“Berlin is stalling the process of investigation for which it’s calling. On purpose?” she said on Facebook.
– ‘Several indications’ –
Maas said there were “several indications” that Russia was behind the poisoning, in the strongest accusations yet from Germany.
“The deadly substance with which Navalny was poisoned has in the past been found in the hands of Russian authorities.
“Only a small number of people have access to Novichok and this poison was used by Russian secret services in the attack against former agent Sergei Skripal,” he said, referring to a 2018 attack on the former double agent and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury.
The Skripals spent days in a coma before recovering but local resident Dawn Sturgess died after picking up a discarded perfume bottle allegedly used to carry the poison.
The Navalny case is only the latest in what Berlin has seen as a series of provocations by Putin that have damaged ties and called future cooperation into question.
The poisoning comes a year after the murder in broad daylight of a former Chechen rebel commander in a Berlin park, which German prosecutors believe was ordered by Russia.
– Nord Stream 2 –
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also revealed in May that Russia had targeted her in hacking attacks, saying she had concrete proof of the “outrageous” spying attempts.
On the subject of which sanctions could be discussed by the EU, Maas did not rule out action relating to Nord Stream 2, a multi-billion-euro Russian-German gas pipeline nearing completion that has drawn the ire of US and European partners alike.
“I hope… that the Russians do not force us to change our position on Nord Stream,” Maas said, adding that the consequences of any potential cancellation of the project would also need to be weighed, and that the debate on sanctions should not be “reduced” to one point.
The controversial pipeline is meant to deliver Russian gas to Europe, but the German government has faced growing calls to abandon it as tensions with Russia escalate.
Bild slammed Merkel last week for comments that Nord Stream 2 should be judged independently from Moscow’s actions.
“Vladimir Putin views the gas pipeline as an important strategic weapon against Europe and as a vital source of funding for his war against his own people,” it said.
Violent protests erupted in the east German city of Leipzig for a third consecutive night over evictions from an occupied building that has become a symbol of anger over rising rents.
Around 500 people took part in the rally on Saturday evening, police said early Sunday.
Protesters in the city’s Connewitz district threw stones and fireworks, they said, with two officers suffering injuries.
The rally was broken up after less than an hour but spontaneous demonstrations followed during the night, with protesters setting fire to bins and a police car.
Police are investigating 15 suspects for breach of the peace, damage to property and resistance to law enforcement officers.
The protests began Wednesday.
The rallies aim to denounce what the far-left, in particular, perceives as the “gentrification” of Leipzig, with the purchase of many apartment buildings by groups of financial investors.
Demonstrations on Friday evening also turned violent, with protesters throwing bottles, fireworks and stones. Eight police officers were slightly injured, six police vehicles damaged and a police station pelted with paint bags and stones.
Leipzig mayor Burkhard Jung described the riots Saturday as a “serious setback” for the debate around affordable housing.
“You don’t create living space by attacking police officers and setting fire to barricades,” he said. “This violence must be condemned in the strongest possible terms.”
German industrial output rebounded 7.8 percent in May, showing a modest recovery after steep falls in March and April due to the effects of the coronavirus, official data showed Tuesday.
By category, production of machine tools were up 27.6 percent on the month, intermediate goods stagnated at 0.1 percent and consumer goods were up slightly at 1.4 percent, the Destatis official statistics agency said.
The May outcome however fell short of the 10 percent rise predicted by analysts.
“The figure is disappointing. After the sharp declines of the previous months, we expected more,” said Jens Oliver Niklasch, an economist for the LBBW bank.
Output remains down 19.3 percent on May last year, a sign of the slow economic recovery after the restrictive measures put in place to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
Production in the beleaguered auto industry increased in May but was still 50 percent below levels in February, before the effects of the pandemic began to bite.
German industrial output plunged a record 17.5 percent in April compared with March as the coronavirus pandemic shut down Europe’s biggest economy.
After two months of lockdown to slow the spread of the virus, the country gradually began lifting restrictions in May.
However, the economic effects of the pandemic are likely to be felt for several more months as the country entered a recession in the first half of the year, with total economic output down 2.2 percent in the first three months.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government expects a return to growth “after the summer break” and “from October at the latest”, Economy Minister Peter Altmaier told the Bild daily on Sunday.
For worse-afflicted neighbours Germany has proved to be an example, with fewer deaths, at around 8,800, than other European countries like France, Italy or Britain.
Medical students’ training in taking a case history from a patient has proved “vital for tracking down the disease,” Gehlhar says.
From the initial case, they spread their net to all of the people they might have come into contact with in the 48 hours before the positive test.
Like detectives, the tracers often can’t settle for the first answer they get.
“An old person living in shared housing might tell us she’s only seen her daughter in the last two days, and later you find out she spoke to the cleaning staff in the stairwell or sat for 30 minutes in the waiting room at the doctor’s office where she was tested,” said Barbara Gruene.
A student doctor, Gruene has found herself at the head of one of the three “brigades” of contact trackers staffing the office.
Once the most extensive possible list of contacts for each case has been established, they must then call each person in turn.
Between them the students can check up on the contactees in more than 20 languages, vital among Cologne’s million-strong multiethnic population.
The tracers hope to convince all first-degree contacts to place themselves under quarantine.
“The vast majority agrees,” says Gruene, allowing the office to “break the virus’ chains of transmission”.
– Second wave looms –
In a microcosm of Germany as a whole, Cologne’s toll from the virus remains limited, with 2,500 infections since February and 100 deaths.
The daily tally of new cases is well below the peak of the pandemic in March.
But “that’s no reason to let our guards down,” warns doctor Johannes Niessen, the head of the public health office.
As lockdowns are eased, the federal government plans to step up testing in parallel to keep the virus’ spread under control.
“We’re prepared for the second wave of infections that could arrive in the autumn,” Niessen says.
Not all of Germany’s 400 public health offices are as resilient as Cologne’s, with the number of doctors recruited by the state down by a third in the past 15 years according to public health doctors’ federation BVOeGD.
Many departing colleagues have not been replaced, as the public salaries on offer can’t compete with the private sector.
The federal health ministry has vowed to spend 50 million euros ($56 million) digitising public health offices, and in the spring recruited 500 students as “containment scouts” deployed to virus hotspots around Germany.
Meanwhile, the German army told AFP it has pressed 190 soldiers into service as contact tracers in health offices nationwide.
Even the new tracking app “cannot replace our contact work nor the advice we give to patients,” tracker Gruene believes.
German airline Lufthansa said Thursday that it would have to slash 22,000 full-time jobs as it predicts a muted recovery in demand for travel following the coronavirus pandemic.
“The recovery in demand in the air transport sector will be slow in the foreseeable future,” the airline said.
The group will operate about 100 less aircraft after the crisis, leading to “a total of 22,000 fewer full-time positions in the Lufthansa Group, half of them in Germany”.
The posts make up 16 percent of the Lufthansa Group’s total workforce of 135,000.
The airline said however that it would look at how it could use schemes for shorter work hours and other crisis arrangements to avoid outright redundancies.
Lufthansa, like its peers, has been brought to its knees by restrictions introduced to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Around 700 of the group’s 763 aircraft were grounded at the peak of the lockdowns and it was forced to place 87,000 workers on government-backed shorter hours schemes.
Lufthansa’s supervisory board last week approved a nine-billion-euro bailout deal from the German government after the company posted a first-quarter net loss of 2.1 billion euros ($2.3 billion).
The bailout will see the German government take a 20-percent stake in the group, with an option on a further five percent plus one share to block hostile takeovers.
The airline has also lost its place on Frankfurt’s Dax 30 index after its share price collapsed.
“Without a significant reduction in personnel costs during the crisis, we will miss the opportunity of a better restart from the crisis and risk the Lufthansa Group emerging from the crisis significantly weakened,” said Michael Niggemann, who heads the airline’s human resources and legal affairs departments.
Eintracht Frankfurt wore playing shirts supporting the Black Lives Matter movement in Wednesday’s German Cup semi-final, while opponents Bayern Munich warmed up in T-shirts bearing the same anti-racism message.
“Our team and the whole of Eintracht Frankfurt are united against all forms of racism and we want to show that publicly today,” explained Frankfurt director Fredi Bobic before kick-off behind closed doors.
Frankfurt’s shirts bearing the logo “#BlackLivesMatter” is the latest sign of solidarity from the Bundesliga in the wake of the death of black American George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a fortnight ago at the hands of police.
The Bayern team warmed-up before their home semi-final in white T-shirts bearing the #BlackLivesMatter logo and “Rot Gegen Rassismus” (Red against Racism), referring to their famous playing strip.
The corner flags at Bayern’s Allianz Arena also carried the same messages.
Borussia Dortmund also wore warm-up T-Shirts showing solidarity for the protests, which have taken place in cities across the US and around the world, before their league match last weekend.
They were among the Bundesliga clubs who also knelt on one knee before kick-off in their league matches at the weekend.
Floyd, who was buried on Monday, died when a policeman kneeled on his neck in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the end of May and his death, caught on video, sparked waves of protests.
The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator told Britain on Sunday that the economic damage wrought by the coronavirus crisis made it especially important the sides reach a new trade deal.
EU and UK negotiators will enter a fourth and last scheduled round of talks this week that could determine if a comprehensive new agreement is struck by the year-end deadline.
Britain formally left the other 27 EU nations in January but still largely operates as if it were a member of the bloc.
It also continues making contributions to the EU budget — a reality that particularly upsets Brexit supporters.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has vowed not to extend the talks past the current deadline — something he must do by the end of June — and the prospects of a broad new deal look bleak.
Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier told The Sunday Times that London and Brussels could afford to make the economic situation even worse by breaking off their nearly 50-year partnership without arrangements for what comes next.
– ‘Three steps back’ –
“If we don’t get an agreement then that will have even more consequences. And then of course those will be added to the already very serious consequences of the coronavirus crisis,” Barnier said.
“So I think that we have a joint responsibility in this very serious crisis, which affects so many families… with so many deaths, so many people sick, so many people unemployed… to do everything we can to reach an agreement and I very much hope that we will do so.”
When the Berlin Cathedral Choir gathered for a rehearsal on March 9, the new coronavirus was still a distant concern, with fewer than 50 confirmed cases in the German capital.
But five days later, one of the ensemble’s 80 singers contacted choir director Tobias Brommann to say she had tested positive for COVID-19.
Within two weeks, around 30 members had tested positive and a further 30 were showing symptoms — including Brommann himself, who was struck down with a headache, cough and fever.
“We also can’t be sure if those without symptoms were not infected too, as we have not done antibody tests,” Brommann told AFP.
Hardly considered an extreme activity up to now, singing — especially choral singing — is quickly earning a reputation in the pandemic as about the most dangerous thing you can do.
Similar horror stories have emerged from choirs around the world, including one in Amsterdam where 102 singers are reported to have fallen sick with COVID-19.
– High-risk activity –
Though much is not yet understood about how the new coronavirus spreads, anecdotal evidence has been enough to convince German authorities that singing is a particularly high-risk activity.
Under new freedoms being gradually introduced across the country’s states, Germans can meet friends in the park, dine in a restaurant, play sports, go to church, browse the shops, watch football and even go swimming.
But singing remains broadly off limits, and it looks likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
In recommendations for the resumption of church services published in April, the federal government stated that singing should be avoided “because of the increased production of potentially infectious droplets, which can be spread over greater distances”.
Several states have heeded the advice and banned singing from services.
Even Germany’s revered Robert Koch Institute (RKI) disease control centre has warned against singing, with RKI head Lothar Wieler saying that “droplets fly particularly far when singing”.
– Infectious particles –
The fears are partly based on the fact that when singing, as Brommann points out, “you inhale and exhale very deeply, so if there are virus particles floating in the air then they can get into the lungs relatively quickly”.
But there is also evidence to suggest that singing produces especially high numbers of potentially infectious micro-particles. According to a study published in the Nature journal in 2019, saying “aah” for 30 seconds produces twice as many such particles as 30 seconds of continuous coughing.
Indeed, many choirs fear their future looks bleak. Five German boys’ choirs have written to the government saying their existence is under threat and demanding action to save them from ruin.
At the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Berlin’s Schoeneberg district, there have been no choir rehearsals since early March.
Soprano Heike Benda-Blanck, 59, has been singing there for 10 years.
“I do miss it,” she said. “You can still sing in the shower but it’s not the same.”
Some research has given cause for optimism. The Bundeswehr University in Munich published a study in early May showing that singing only disturbs air flow up to half a metre (1.6 feet) in front of the person.
Freiburg University’s Institute for Performing Arts Medicine has also published guidelines for singing partly based on a study it carried out in the southern city of Bamberg with similar results.
However, institute head Bernhard Richter warns: “Contrary to what was sometimes reported, we did not make any aerosol measurements” — tiny particles that have the potential to circulate much further in a room.
The institute published updated guidelines this week that include limiting the number of people in the room and the length of rehearsals, staying two metres apart, keeping rooms ventilated, screening choir members and wearing masks.
– ‘Work in progess’ –
“This is a work in progress,” Richter said. “Of course singers want clear statements, black and white, but then you have to say, maybe we don’t know yet.”
In proposals to the authorities, Germany’s Catholic Church has endorsed “quiet singing” in services, as well as restricting numbers and requiring people to stand 1.5 metres apart, though the Protestant Church continues to advise a complete ban.
But the potential dangers of singing became clear once again this month after a virus outbreak at a church service in Frankfurt — where the congregation had been singing and not wearing masks. At least 40 people were infected at the service, with 112 affected overall.
It remains to be seen whether singing can be controlled at other events in Germany, such as Bundesliga football matches, which are being played behind closed doors until further notice.
Singing could also potentially spread the virus at large events such as rock concerts and the Oktoberfest beer festival, where rowdy singing is an integral of the proceedings — undoubtedly one of the reasons it has been cancelled for 2020.
A spokesman for the interior ministry told AFP that since all major events are banned until at least August 31 in Germany anyway, this remains a “hypothetical question”.
“It depends on how the infection situation develops,” he said.
German consumer confidence recovered some of the ground lost due the coronavirus shock but it remains deep in negative territory as Europe’s top economy faces a slow recovery, a survey showed Tuesday.
Pollsters GfK said their forward-looking monthly barometer for June showed a reading of minus 18.9 points, up from the May reading of minus 23.1 when the indicator plunged 25 points overall.
Despite the improvement, the June level is the second-lowest ever measured by the survey since its creation in 1980, GfK said.
“Step-by-step reopening of many businesses has definitely helped prevent any further erosion,” GfK expert Rolf Buerkl said.
“But uncertainty remains high among consumers. They believe the German economy is far from out of the woods and expect to be hit by a serious recession.”
Looking to the sub-indexes that make up the consumer confidence measure, people’s expectations for the economic outlook and for their own income both improved — but also remained in negative territory.
Despite rigid hygiene guidelines for the restart of the Bundesliga this weekend, a leading German sports doctor has warned footballers are still at risk of suffering “irreversible” and potentially career-ending lung damage from the coronavirus.
With Europe’s other top leagues at least a month away from resuming, the German Football League (DFL) has drawn up strict rules for when games restart this Saturday.
Matches will be played behind closed doors, with only a limited number of media and officials allowed to attend.
The key games see second-placed Borussia Dortmund at home to Schalke in Saturday’s derby and leaders Bayern Munich, who are four points clear, visiting Union Berlin on Sunday.
Players have been told to limit contact, even on the pitch, and must avoid pre-match handshakes and hugs to celebrate goals.
The DFL says while no plan could ever be “100 percent safe”, the guidelines aim to create a playing environment with a low, “medically-justifiable risk”.
However, professor Wilhelm Bloch, from the German Sports University in Cologne, warns that contracting the coronavirus has the potential to end a player’s career.
First signs that transmission of the novel coronavirus has again picked up were visible in German official data, just as the country attempts a cautious easing of its lockdown measures.
The reproduction or infection rate under close watch by health authorities mounted again to around 1.0, meaning each infected person passes the virus on to one other, figures from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for disease control showed late Tuesday.
Ministers and virologists have hammered home the importance of squeezing the number below 1.0.
And the country has seen days of intense media and political debate after Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Germany’s federal states against loosening their lockdowns too quickly.
Since mid-April, the infection rate had sunk as low as 0.7 before inching back up again.
Meanwhile, the mortality rate from the disease has also been rising day by day.
By Tuesday, it had reached 3.8 percent according to RKI figures, which remains well below some neighbouring countries such as France.
The latest data showed 156,337 cases in Germany and 5,913 deaths.
Rising infection and mortality rates could pose a puzzle for authorities, as a population chafing at lockdown measures is just beginning to enjoy some refound freedoms and an initial united front in politics and media crumbles.
Health Minister Jens Spahn earlier in April declared the pandemic “under control” in Germany, as Merkel and state premiers agreed smaller shops could open from last week and some pupils return to school from next Monday.
Meanwhile, some major businesses like car giant Volkswagen have restarted production in recent days.
Now the less encouraging data will flow into the chancellor’s deliberations with regional leaders on Thursday, ahead of a new round of lockdown decisions on May 6.
Until now, the May 6 gathering had been expected to bring further easing of restrictions.
Merkel’s pleas not to rush a step-by-step unwinding of lockdown for fear of again worsening the virus’ spread were dismissed or even blasted as authoritarian by some voices in media and the opposition.
“Even if we assume that one person infects 1.1 others, we would reach the limits of what our health system and intensive care beds can manage in October,” she warned earlier this month.
“If we assume a rate of 1.2… we would reach the health system’s limit in July. And with a rate of 1.3 — it doesn’t sound like much — we would get there in June already,” she added.