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Germany debates post-lockdown plan as Merkel calls coronavirus ‘biggest test in EU history’

The German government said Monday that it's not yet giving any cut-off dates on restrictions on public life scheduled to last until April 19th.

Germany debates post-lockdown plan as Merkel calls coronavirus 'biggest test in EU history'
Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: DPA

Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) said that she could not yet name such a exit date for restrictions on public life – currently in place until April 19th – and that this would be “irresponsible” in the current situation.

“We would be a bad government if we were to name a date now,” Merkel said at a press conference on Monday, referring to a possible relaxation of the current coronavirus rules which mandate closures of non-essential businesses and severely limit public life.

READ ALSO: Germany bans gatherings of more than two to control coronavirus spread

A return to normalcy?

However, a draft action plan by Germany's Interior Ministry spoke of a return to normality, reported news agency Reuters, using mechanisms that will make it possible to trace more than 80 percent of people with whom an infected person had contact within 24 hours of diagnosis.

Those confirmed to be infected – and those they had contact with – with would be quarantined, either at home or in hotels.

According to the report, retail stores and restaurants could reopen on April 19th, and in certain regions, schools would also welcome students again. Large events and private celebrations would remain prohibited for the time being, however.

Furthermore, according to the report, face masks will be made mandatory in buses, trains, factories and buildings as soon as a sufficient stock is made available.

However, Merkel did not comment on this on Monday.

'A very different Easter'

In her weekly podcast published on Friday evening, the Chancellor said that she would “act absolutely irresponsibly if today I were simply to give you a concrete day on which the measures could be lifted or at least eased, but then not keep this promise because the infection figures do not allow it”.

She added that “we're all going to have a very different Easter than ever before”.

Seibert also praised Germans, saying that the majority were sticking to the restrictions.

Neighbouring Austria announced on Monday that it will ease its lockdown restrictions on April 14th, when it will allow some non-essential shops to reopen under strict hygiene measures.

'Biggest test in history'

The coronavirus pandemic is the biggest test that the EU has faced in its history, Merkel added on Monday, stressing that Germany is “ready to contribute” to boosting the bloc.

“In my view… the European Union stands before the biggest test since its founding,” Merkel told journalists ahead of a key eurozone finance ministers' conference to draw up an economic rescue plan for the bloc.

“Everyone is just as affected as the other, and therefore, it is in everyone's interest, and it is in Germany's interest for Europe to emerge strong from this test.”

Discussions between EU leaders over what a possible aid package would consist of have been fraught with nations hardest hit in the health crisis pitted against economically stronger countries.

Italy, France and Spain have been imploring Germany, Austria and the Netherlands for common debt facilities to cushion the economic impact of the virus.

'Self-sufficiency'

But conservative politicians in the north fear the plans would mean the eventual mutualisation of all sovereign debts and their taxpayers footing the bill for supposed southern profligacy.

At Monday's press conference, Merkel reiterated her government's stance of activating the European Stability Mechanism bailout fund, which German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz has said could be triggered “with no senseless conditions” to help struggling states.

But she made no mention of the controversial common debt facilities dubbed “coronabonds”.

Merkel also said a lesson to be learnt from the pandemic was that Europe needed to develop “self-sufficiency” in manufacturing of crucial medical gear such as masks.

“Regardless of the fact that this market is presently installed in Asia… we need a certain self-sufficiency, or at least a pillar of our own manufacturing” in Germany or elsewhere in the European Union, she said.

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COVID-19

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany. 

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