“When the virus crisis is over, we will have to look at what the NHS can learn from Germany.” The headline on my piece for ConHome on 15th April continues to apply: Germany’s impressive progress since that time, attested by the graphs in the sober reports of the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, reinforces it.
But marked success in reducing the figures for deaths and new cases has led to a severe political row in Germany about how quickly the restrictions which drove down the reinfection rate can be lifted.
Some leaders of the 16 federal states, who had previously competed to see who could introduce the toughest measures to control the pandemic, now compete to see who can most swiftly set their citizens free.
Armin Laschet, the leader of North Rhine-Westphalia (population 18 million, capital Düsseldorf), has pushed for weeks for the restrictions to be lifted, and has threatened to reopen kindergartens.
At the start of this week, Saxony-Anhalt (population 2.3 million, capital Magdeburg) allowed meetings between five people who do not live in the same house. Lower Saxony (population 10 million, capital Hanover) proceeded to announce that from next Monday, restaurants, cafes and beer gardens will be permitted to reopen, and that from 25th May hotels and youth hostels can open too.
Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (population 1.6 million, capital Schwerin) followed Lower Saxony’s lead, and everywhere, the desperate proprietors of beer gardens, restaurants and hotels pleaded with state governments to save them from ruin.
The Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who knows that tourism prompts travel and therefore increases the danger of infection, pleaded in vain for a cautious approach. She lacks the power to uphold strict rules: health, sport, schools and kindergartens are all the responsibility of the federal states.
On Wednesday, she held a video conference lasting four and a half hours, longer than expected, with the minister presidents of the 16 states, and had to give ground.
The states will decide whether and when to reopen restaurants, hotels, cinemas, theatres, concert halls and brothels. The Bundesliga will soon be playing football behind closed doors, and residents in care homes will be allowed to nominate a visitor who can come and see them.
Merkel obtained one major concession. There will be an “emergency brake”: any institution or community which in seven days registers more than 50 Coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants will be placed once more under lockdown.
The row between Berlin and the 16 states looks as if it may have led to an admirable compromise, maintaining national standards while allowing for account to be taken of the highly unequal incidence of the Coronavirus.
But some Germans object to their country being reduced to a “patchwork” – Flickenteppich, patchwork rug, is the disparaging term used – with different rules applying in different places.
My old friend in the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg (population 1.84 million), Professor Doctor Moritz Hagenmeyer, an eminent lawyer who is actually much fonder of cricket than of golf, draws my attention to an anomaly which arose at a golf club in the neighbouring state of Schleswig-Holstein (population 2.9 million, capital Kiel), where a small part of the course happens to be on the other side of the border with Hamburg.
Last week, golf was allowed in Schleswig-Holstein and forbidden in Hamburg, so one of the holes at the club had to be shortened from 300 to 100 metres in order to ensure that players did not enter Hamburg.
To British eyes, there is something delightful in such an anomaly. Our own counties, until wrecked by the infamous Heatho-Walkerian reforms of the early 1970s, used to be a patchwork, each locality rejoicing in its historic peculiarities, its long-established industries, its sense of being superior to its neighbours.
This sense of local independence today exists more strongly in Germany than in Britain, and is one reason for that country’s success. Decisions about Germany’s great industries are still taken in the towns and cities where they were born and nurtured.
As David Skelton has recently pointed out, the catastrophe of Britiish nationalisation was that decisions about, for example, the steel works in Consett were now taken hundreds of miles away in London, where it was easier to pretend that under-investment would somehow work out fine.
I may appear to have wandered from the subject of the pandemic. But a mortal weakness of our health system is that the nationalisation of the late 1940s meant the key decisions about investment, and indeed about everything else, would henceforth be taken in London.
Local initiative, though not extinct, was severely discouraged. We were taught as a people to look to London for salvation, and this is what we have witnessed during the present crisis: the contemptible sight of a nation of supplicants, unable to obtain hospital gowns without the say-so of Matt Hancock.
If Boris Johnson wants to revive the northern towns, with their grand but redundant town halls, he must find a way to restore the power of initiative to them.
Only a management consultant would imagine this can be done by copying the German federal system. What we need is a way to recover local power which is in harmony with British traditions. Only then will we be in a fit state to survive the next global crisis.