Germany has today ordered 360,000 people back into lockdown after a coronavirus outbreak at a meat factory caused a spike in the country’s R rate.
More than 1,500 people have tested positive at the Toennies slaughterhouse in the last week and the whole district of Guetersloh is now heading back into lockdown.
Bars, gyms, cinemas, swimming pools and sports halls in Guetersloh will have to shut their doors again while picnics and barbecues will be banned, Mail reports.
Armin Laschet, the state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, announced that ‘we will return [the] entire district to the measures that applied several weeks ago’.
‘This is a limited measure of caution. We will lift the measure as soon as possible when we have certainty about the safety of the infection,’ Laschet told a news conference. ‘It is a preventative measure.’
Guetersloh residents will be offered free testing, Laschet said – with 24 infections already identified that are not linked to the meat factory.
Health authorities had already quarantined all 6,500 workers at the Toennies plant and carried out tests on the entire workforce after the outbreak came to light.
The plant’s billionaire owner Clemens Toennies, nicknamed the ‘Pig Baron’, has apologised for the outbreak – but the firm is facing anger over alleged ‘exploitation’ of the many Eastern European migrants who work there and live in crowded company-provided accommodation.
The Toennies cluster is the largest of several new outbreaks which have sent Germany’s R rate rising to an alarming 2.76, although health chiefs say the number is more likely to lurch around when the overall figures are low.
Clemens Toennies, who has an estimated net worth of $2.3billion, said on Saturday that the new outbreak was an ‘existential crisis’ for the company.
‘As a company we thought we had done everything right,’ he said, after operations were suspended because of the crisis.
‘As an entrepreneur I can only apologise. We have caused this and are fully responsible for it,’ Toennies said.
Toennies, who is also the chairman of football team Schalke 04 has previously attracted controversy by feuding with his nephew Robert and making comments about Africans ‘cutting down trees’ which football bosses ruled to be racist.
Robert Toennies has called for his uncle Clemens to resign in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
The outbreak has also prompted protests in front of the meat-packing plant calling for the closure of slaughterhouses across Germany.
Ansgar Puff, a bishop in nearby Cologne, condemned what he called ‘exploitation and slavery-like practices’ at meat-packing plants in Germany.
‘Migrants from Eastern Europe are misused as cheap labour in the middle of Germany and housed in inhumane dwellings. The exploitative employment in the meat industry is a scandal,’ he said.
‘Before the corona cases in the slaughterhouses, the topic was of little interest to the general public. It was just too easy for many to close their eyes.’
Local authorities are employing translators to help manage the quarantine and the embassies of Romania, Bulgaria and Poland have offered assistance.
Germany’s labour minister Hubertus Heil has suggested that Toennies could have to pay damages for the outbreak.
‘We should examine to what extent the company bears civil responsibility’ for the outbreak and resulting lockdown, he told German television.
Anton Hofreiter, the parliamentary leader of the Green party, has said that Clemens Toennies should pay any such compensation out of his own pocket.
China has already banned meat imports from Toennies, which is one of Germany’s largest meat producers.
The outbreak near Guetersloh was first reported on Wednesday, when 400 workers tested positive.
By Friday, that number had doubled to 803 and it had climbed further to 1,029 by Saturday. Last night it increased to 1,553.
The entire workforce has been quarantined whether they tested positive or not, while health authorities carry out further screening on their households.
The German army has been deployed to help manage the quarantine while police distribute food to thousands of people in an accommodation block.
Schools and kindergartens in the district of Guetersloh have also been shut since Thursday.
The leader of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet, has said he ‘cannot rule out a blanket lockdown’ in Germany’s most populous state.
Laschet has come under fire for suggesting that ‘Romanians and Bulgarians’ working at the plant were responsible for bringing the virus.
He later backtracked and acknowledged that the migrants’ poor working and living conditions in Germany may have contributed to the spread of the virus.
The Toennies outbreak is the largest of a handful of new clusters which have sent Germany’s R rate soaring to 2.76 in recent days.
A figure above 1 means that the number of cases will grow over time, while a rate below 1 means that the outbreak is in decline.
Angela Merkel has previously warned that Germany’s hospitals could be overwhelmed if the rate hovers even slightly above 1.
The Robert Koch diseases institute (RKI) which calculates the rate says the rate is prone to jumping around when the overall number of cases is still low.
The high rate ‘is linked to local clusters… with the outbreak in North Rhine-Westphalia playing a particularly large role,’ the RKI says.
Germany’s total number of new cases rose to 3,553 last week compared to 2,290 the week before – ending 10 straight weeks of decline.