LATEST: Coronavirus threat in Germany assessed as ‘high’

On Tuesday, Germany announced it would fly tourists stranded by coronavirus home, as the Robert Koch Institute newly assessed the threat level of the coronavirus as "high."

LATEST: Coronavirus threat in Germany assessed as 'high'
Travellers wearing protective masks in Berlin's Tegel airport. Photo: DPA

“As of today, it can be considered high,” said Robert Koch Institute director Lothar Wieler at a press conference.

As of noon, the number of confirmed cases had risen to 7,600, over 1,000 more than the previous day, with 20 deaths

It came as Friedrich Merz, one of the candidates vying to take over as chairman of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said he had contracted coronavirus, reported German daily Welt.

“A corona test carried out on me on Sunday was positive,” said the 64-year-old former Union faction leader.

“I will be under quarantine at home until the end of next week.”

Merz said he had “mild to moderate symptoms”. He confirmed all of his appointments had been cancelled.

“I am strictly following the instructions of the health department,” he added.

Merz is considered one of three promising candidates to succeed the outgoing CDU chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, making him a possible future candidate for chancellor.

As well as Merz, North Rhine-Westphalia's state premier Armin Laschet and foreign policy expert Norbert Röttgen are also running for office.

A party conference originally planned for April 25th to elect the new chairman has been postponed by the CDU due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Hospitals need to plan

Due to the rising number of cases, it is becoming harder to trace the “infection chain”, or the source from which a person became infected in the first place, said Wieler. 

He added that hospitals need to quickly prepare for a growing number of seriously ill patients. “We expect all hospitals to at least double their intensive care capacities,” said Wieler.

However, the risk varies from region to region and can also be “very high” in some regions, such as the district of Heinsberg in North Rhine-Westphalia.

So far, the health risk in Germany from the coronavirus had been classified as overall “moderate”.

Stranded travellers

In the morning, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced that the country would take action to bring back thousands of German tourists who are currently stranded, and warned against travel.

Germany will make €50 million available to repatriate citizens who are stuck abroad due to travel restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic.

A special 'airlift' operation has been set up with commercial flight providers to bring back German tourists from particularly affected areas in the coming days.

These include Morocco, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Egypt and the Maldives. Operators are to provide flights in cooperation with the Federal Foreign Office.

All those affected are urged to consult the Foreign Office's website and contact their tour operators. Embassies and consulates should also help those abroad.

'Stay at home'

It came as the German government issued a formal warning against holiday travel abroad. Maas also urged people in Germany to cancel all upcoming trips and “stay at home”.

“Beyond that, we must prevent more German travellers from becoming stranded abroad,” he said.

“For this reason we have decided to warn against all tourist trips abroad from now on. Please stay at home. It will help you and others.”

Maas said the warning against travel applies worldwide and said disruption to air traffic was far from over.

READ ALSO: What's the latest on coronavirus in Germany and what do I need to know?

As the global coronavirus crisis deepens, many countries have closed borders and cancelled flights due to the rapid spread of the virus. Since Germany is now one of the main high risk countries, German travellers are particularly affected by restrictions.

German shut down on public life

It came after the government announced extreme measures aimed at stalling the spread of coronavirus.

From Tuesday, all non-essential shops and other facilities should be closed, while restaurants and cafes will have limited opening hours.

People have been urged to stay at home and avoid unnecessary social contact.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus restrictions: What's closed (and what's open) in Germany?

On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel also warned people in Germany against holidaying, either at home or abroad.

During a press conference she urged people to follow the new rules. She said: “There have never been measures like this in our country before. They are far-reaching, but at the moment they are necessary.”

Germany has recorded around 7,200 coronavirus cases and 17 deaths as of Tuesday morning.

Disruption to last months

Meanwhile, Economics Minister Peter Altmaier said the disruption to daily life would not end quickly.

“I assume that we will certainly have to deal with the consequences for the whole month of April and the whole month of May,” he told broadcaster RTL.

There will still be a “considerable number of new infections” during this period, Altmaier added. “Therefore, I would not advise anyone to bank on this being over in eight days.”

He said financial support and guarantees to those struggling needed to be provided as soon as possible.

 “We don't have weeks, we have days to get it all done,” he said.

It came as German auto giant Volkswagen on Tuesday said the group was preparing to shutter most of its European plants as the coronavirus pandemic disrupts supply chains and sends demand plummeting.

“Production will be halted at our Spanish plants, Setubal in Portugal, Bratislava in Slovakia and the Lamborghini and Ducati plants in Italy before the end of this week,” CEO Herbert Diess said.

“Most of the other German and European plants will begin preparing to suspend production, probably for two to three weeks.”

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Court turns down AfD-led challenge to Germany’s spending in pandemic

The German Constitutional Court rejected challenges Tuesday to Berlin's participation in the European Union's coronavirus recovery fund, but expressed some reservations about the massive package.

Court turns down AfD-led challenge to Germany's spending in pandemic

Germany last year ratified the €750-billion ($790-billion) fund, which offers loans and grants to EU countries hit hardest by the pandemic.

The court in Karlsruhe ruled on two challenges, one submitted by a former founder of the far-right AfD party, and the other by a businessman.

They argued the fund could ultimately lead to Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, having to take on the debts of other EU member states on a permanent basis.

But the Constitutional Court judges ruled the EU measure does not violate Germany’s Basic Law, which forbids the government from sharing other countries’ debts.

READ ALSO: Germany plans return to debt-limit rules in 2023

The judgement noted the government had stressed that the plan was “intended to be a one-time instrument in reaction to an unprecedented crisis”.

It also noted that the German parliament retains “sufficient influence in the decision-making process as to how the funds provided will be used”.

The judges, who ruled six to one against the challenges, did however express some reservations.

They questioned whether paying out such a large amount over the planned period – until 2026 – could really be considered “an exceptional measure” to fight the pandemic.

At least 37 percent of the funds are aimed at achieving climate targets, the judges said, noting it was hard to see a link between combating global warming and the pandemic.

READ ALSO: Germany to fast-track disputed €200 billion energy fund

They also warned against any permanent mechanism that could lead to EU members taking on joint liability over the long term.

Berenberg Bank economist Holger Schmieding said the ruling had “raised serious doubts whether the joint issuance to finance the fund is in line with” EU treaties.

“The German court — once again — emphasised German limits for EU fiscal integration,” he said.

The court had already thrown out a legal challenge, in April 2021, that had initially stopped Berlin from ratifying the financial package.

Along with French President Emmanuel Macron, then chancellor Angela Merkel sketched out the fund in 2020, which eventually was agreed by the EU’s 27 members in December.

The first funds were disbursed in summer 2021, with the most given to Italy and Spain, both hit hard by the pandemic.