Does Germany really have the strictest COVID restrictions in the world?

Does Germany really have the strictest COVID restrictions in the world?

It’s a statement that’s been circulating as fact on some news sites and social media: Germany currently has the strictest coronavirus restrictions in the whole world. Is this true? A closer look suggests it’s actually a bit of a simplification. 

The COVID Stringency Index puts Germany on top

As of December 31, 2021, Germany had the toughest measures against coronavirus in the world. This was asserted by Reiner Haseloff, the state premier of Saxony-Anhalt, at a press conference last week. It’s also a statement that’s circulating on social media. But how accurate is it?

The source of the claims is the COVID-19 Stringency Index, a study put together by the University of Oxford in the UK that is designed to show the strictness of government COVID policies around the world. It takes into account measures including: 

  • Closure of schools
  • Closure of workplaces
  • Cancellation of events
  • Restrictions on public gatherings
  • Closure of public transport
  • Stay-at-home requirements
  • Public information campaigns
  • Restrictions on internal movements
  • International travel controls

Each country is given an overall score between 0 and 100, calculated as a mean of the nine metrics. Zero means no measures at all, while 100 means the toughest measures out there. The scores are then laid out in a neat, clickable chart:

Are COVID measures in Germany really that strict?

On December 31, 2021, Germany scored 84,26 points out of 100 - the highest of any country included in the index. The federal republic is, for example, ahead of China - where small outbreaks are followed up by mass lockdowns - and even its neighbour, the Netherlands, where a full-on lockdown was ordered in mid-December. Despite this, the Netherlands scored 64 points, 20 points less than Germany. 

According to the index’s legend, the high score in Germany is driven by some tough measures, including the closure of schools, restrictions on public transport, closed shops and the obligation to wear a mask in certain public spaces. 

But, as ARD reports, this raises some questions. For one, the vast majority of schools in Germany are not closed. Indeed, ministers have in recent weeks repeatedly emphasised that everything should be done to allow them to remain open. Shops, restaurants, bars, museums and other sights and attractions are also mostly still open - in contrast to the lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic, and the situation in some other countries around the world. 

Strict for some, but not for everyone

An explanation for this seeming inconsistency can be found in the index’s data basis. In a country as large as Germany - which due to its federal system also cedes a lot of control over coronavirus policy to the federal states - there can be great differences in rules from place to place. But the index does not reflect this: “If policies vary at the subnational level, the index shows the response level of the strictest subregion,” the report’s authors state.

Thomas Hale, a project manager at the Stringency Index, confirmed this to “If only one federal state in Germany has introduced the stricter regulations, but the rest of the country has no similar regulations, we record the strictest regulations and add a corresponding label.” 

What has happened, therefore, is that regional lockdowns in areas with extremely high incidence rates - as were seen in Bavaria and Saxony in the lead-up to the Christmas holidays - were used as a reference for the whole of Germany, despite most parts of the country not experiencing such restrictions. 

Hale further explained that the index does not differentiate between rules for different population groups - the strictest version of the regulations are always taken into account. And since Germany’s 2G rules for shops and restaurants amount to a de facto lockdown for unvaccinated people, it seems like the regulations are much harsher than they are, despite them not affecting the vast majority of people (as of January 11, 2022, 72 percent of the German population is fully-vaccinated). 

The same goes for the 3G rules on public transport, which the index has interpreted as a rule to “Require closing (or prohibit most citizens from using it)”. However, this isn’t really true, as only untested, unvaccinated people are banned from using buses and trains. The rule isn’t an obstacle for the rest of the population. 

Index should soon reflect differentiations within countries

Hale said that work is being done to improve the index’s data collection system, to include regulations that apply to both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. He warned against reading too much into the index, which he said is “to be understood as a simple summary of the number and intensity of the applicable restrictions.” 



Abi Carter

Abi studied History & German at the University of Manchester. She has since worked as a writer, editor and content marketeer, but still has a soft spot for museums, castles...

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