Court overturns local lockdown on German slaughterhouse town

BERLIN (Reuters) - A court in western Germany overturned an emergency lockdown imposed in the town of Guetersloh following a coronavirus outbreak in a slaughterhouse there, ruling that the restrictions were disproportionate.

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The ruling, after some 1,500 workers were infected, throws into doubt the system of quick lockdown responses and rapid track-and-trace on which Germany has been relying to move into the second phase of its fight against the pandemic.

After the outbreak, the premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia brought in a week-long lockdown, imposing social distancing on the town of about 100,000 people and closing many cultural institutions to try to stop its spread.

A legal challenge brought by a private individual against the first week of lockdown was rejected.

But when it was extended to run for another week until Tuesday, an entertainments company operating in the district put in a second challenge and the court changed its mind, saying authorities had had time to impose more targeted restrictions.

“At the beginning of the oubtreak ... the introduction of stricter rules for the district was not unreasonable,” it said in a statement on Monday.

“That should have won time for further information to be gathered in order to decide on how to act. By the time of the present ruling, however, it should have been possible and desirable to come up with a more nuanced rule.”

With its lavishly equipped healthcare system, Germany has fared better in the pandemic than most of its European neighbours, and the slowing spread of the virus has allowed much of the economy to almost fully reopen.

But federal and regional governments have been relying on being able to impose lockdowns where major outbreaks take hold, giving them time to track down and isolate new cases, a strategy this ruling calls into question.

The court said such lockdowns needed to be more focused more quickly. “Mass tests carried out since the discovery of the outbreak show that the number of new infections varies significantly within the different parts of the region,” it said.

The outbreak, at a plant owned by meat company Toennies, has raised questions about the conditions of work in the German meat industry, led China to impose import restrictions, and triggered calls for Germans to pay more for meat.

Toennies has apologised and said the firm had struggled to collect personal data of workers so authorities could trace the outbreak.

Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Alison Williams