Britain is patting itself on the back over testing—after the peak has passed. How many lives could have been saved by taking the German approach from the off?by Stephen Buranyi / May 1, 2020 / Leave a comment
When I reached Dr Rainer Schwertz, in Heidelberg, he expressed something that has been in short supply from nearly everyone in the UK: honest hope that the Covid-19 crisis may be under control. “For four weeks here we have had more recoveries from Covid-19 than new cases,” he told me. Schwertz is head of the public health department in the Rhein-Neckar district of Germany, a local administrative region of over 600,000 people, which includes the city of Heidelberg. Germany has been lauded for its response to the coronavirus crisis, moving quickly with an aggressive track-and-trace strategy that appears to have stalled the outbreak and prevented it from overwhelming the health system—as I write, Germany’s death rate, adjusted for population, is less than a quarter that of the UK.
The response that Schwertz and his deputy, Dr Andreas Welker, outlined to me is surely a big reason why. For them, the crisis began in earnest on 27th February, the moment the first confirmed case was reported in a local hospital—a person who had just returned from a skiing holiday in Italy. “We realised people are coming back from Carnival vacation, and there would be more cases,” said Welker. “The numbers were not bad yet, even to the first week of March, but we saw what was happening in China, in Europe, and we took a leap of faith to scale up,” added Schwertz.
Starting the next day, the public health authority restructured all its departments towards crisis response—staff that usually worked on dentistry or children’s health were moved to public information call centres or processing testing data. “At first we asked the University of Heidelberg for some medical students to help out—initially there were 11, a week later there were 120,” said Schwertz. The local government seconded 100 staff to public health and opened the coffers for “whatever we needed,” he explained. And indeed, Stefan Dallinger, the district administrator of the Rhein-Neckar region told me: “In the beginning I didn’t know what an FFP2 mask was, but the doctors know best and my job is to back them up, give them the budget to do everything.”
From the beginning, the plan was clear. Widespread testing…