When will shops and schools re-open? When will people be allowed to go outside freely again? Will everyone be able to go to work again soon? These are just some of the questions we're all asking as we look towards the future when the pandemic eases in Germany.
Now a new internal government draft action plan, viewed by some media outlets including the Tagesspiegel, sheds some light on what Germany’s path out of its current partial lockdown could look like.
On the record, the German government has stressed that any relaxation of strict coronavirus rules are – so far – not on the agenda.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly urged people in Germany to be patient and to stick to social distancing measures, which include a ban on gatherings of more than two people and the closure of schools and non-essential shops.
Merkel said on Monday that restrictions on free movement and business closures, in effect in Germany since March 22nd, would remain in place until at least April 19th and that it was too early to talk about relaxing the lockdown.
“Nothing will change in this regard,” said Merkel.
At the same time, however, Merkel indicated that the government is thinking about the future and how public life can be re-introduced “while maintaining health protection”.
It came as Austria on Tuesday set out plans to become the first country in Europe to ease its lockdown against the coronavirus pandemic.
Under the plans, a gradual lifting of restrictions will take place, with shops due to reopen as early as next week. However, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said months of controlling measures still lie ahead.
Bavaria's state premier Markus Söder stressed that in Germany the restrictions are likely to remain in place for some time yet. “We must be careful and not risk a relapse,” he said.
Söder said he would only consider which restrictions can be relaxed in Bavaria and Germany after the Easter holidays. The step-by-step model planned in Austria could act as role model, he said.
A quiet street in central Aachen on Tuesday. Photo: DPA
Pandemic can be kept under control without lockdown
The internal paper showing what Germany post-lockdown might look like is currently being circulated in the government.
According to this draft document, the strict measures should be relaxed as quickly as possible. Even though the pandemic will probably go on until 2021, it can be kept under control without an “extensive lockdown”, says the paper.
Here’s an overview of the draft plan:
- Initially after the lockdown, some retailers and restaurants could reopen
- In certain regions, schools could also reopen
- Major events and private parties are to remain banned for a longer period of time
- To prevent a renewed rise in coronavirus infections, the paper recommends making it compulsory to wear protective masks in buses, trains, factories and other buildings
- There would be rapid tracing of infection chains, with infected people having to quarantine at home or in hotels
According to the paper, scientists are closely watching the infection rate per sick person. “It must be reduced to well below 1.0 on a sustained basis,” the paper states, before measures can be relaxed. This means that an infected person would only infect one other person with the virus.
The reproductive number – the number of secondary infections generated from one infected individual – is understood to be between 2 and 2.5 for the Covid-19 virus in general, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report.
According to Robert Koch Institute head Lothar Wieler, the reproduction rate of coronavirus infections in Germany is currently between 1.2 and 1.5. This is slightly higher than at the end of last week. On Friday, Wieler had put the factor at 1.
So what might the relaxed lockdown look like in different sectors of public life? Here's an overview of what could happen.
Some businesses and restaurants allowed to open but with conditions
Pre-defined economic and industrial sectors of particular relevance would be the first to get revived after the lockdown – but only if they have established their own protection systems.
And the following “rule of thumb” must apply: “The more customer contact, the later the return to normality”.
Certain sectors of the business world could therefore initially resume operations as “islands”, provided that they do not provide too much customer contact.
Cafes and restaurants could also reopen relatively soon. But only with a limited number of guests. The ban on major events, meetings, private celebrations and clubs would remain in place for a longer period of time.
Strict measures in schools and other educational facilities
Schools and other educational institutions could initially be reopened regionally. There could be strict controls put in place at school entrances, with options for Covid-19 tests in some cases.
The paper states that special task forces should be set up to prepare for the opening of specific areas of life such as schools or universities. These task forces should also develop rules of conduct.
What about testing and tracing infection chains?
The concept proposed in the internal paper would only work if people with coronavirus are quickly detected and isolated.
But this would require a massive expansion of laboratory capacities across Germany. Experts say that 80 to 100 percent of all contact people of a person confirmed to be infected with coronavirus would need to be found and tested within 24 hours.
The internal paper states: “Our estimates suggest that German testing capacities per day must be increased from the current 60,000 to 500,000 by the end of May in order to achieve effective control when the lockdown is gradually lifted.”
And in order to achieve a slow infection rate in society and to avoid overburdening the health system, real-time tests and reporting systems are crucial.
To be able to quarantine 80 to 100 percent of the contacts of an infected person at home or in hotels within 24 hours, the German government could also rely on a voluntary app.
The Robert Koch Institute is already moving in this direction. The public health organisation launched an app on Tuesday April 7th called Corona Datenspende (Corona Data Donation).
People enjoying the sun in Berlin's Tempelhof air field on Sunday. Photo: DPA
It allows people to voluntarily and anonymously share information from their fitness trackers, such as a Smartwatch or fitness bracelet, that could reveal signs of a Covid-19 infection.
The free app will log a person's postcode, age and weight and keep track of any changes in activity and sleep habits, heart rate or even body temperature that could be symptoms of an acute respiratory disease.
Tests and protective masks
The internal paper proposes to set up mobile test stations. In local regions at risk, screenings of the entire population living there two to three times would be useful, while regions without new infections would also have to be specifically screened.
As soon as sufficient protective masks are available, compulsory masks on buses and trains, and in factories and buildings should be introduced. This is what the draft paper states under the heading “transition to virus control phase”.
Changed working hours after lockdown
The Labour Ministry in agreement with the Health Ministry, has also submitted a draft 'Covid-19 Working Time Regulation'. This stipulates that “for a limited period of time, longer working hours, shorter rest periods and the employment of workers on Sundays and public holidays for certain activities” are also possible.
It would mean medical staff could work for longer in some cases during the crisis but not permanently.
The internal concept paper focuses on the personal responsibility of the individual. It is crucial for the success of the strategy that people continue to keep their distance from each other, the experts state.
The “promotion of social acceptance of distance measures by providing information on risk-appropriate behaviour” would therefore have to be high on the political agenda.
Ultimately, it would require “an extraordinary effort on the part of society as a whole, involving the federal government, civil society, science, businesses and the Bundeswehr (German army)”, the paper states.
Could Germany's federalism be an obstacle to lifting restrictions?
As Germany is a federal country, power is devolved on many issues to each state. And this may not make post-lockdown life easier as each state does things a slightly different way.
Experts point to regionally varying case numbers and infection risks. For example, in Berlin, bookstores and bicycle shops are allowed to remain open. In Bavaria, bookstores have to be shut.
In Hamburg, on the other hand, flower shops may be open, but not in Bremen.
Different rules in states could make coordinating action that little bit trickier.
What will happen regarding citizens in risk groups?
According to the draft concept paper, the some 20 million residents in Germany who are particularly at risk should receive special protection.
People in elderly and nursing homes will likely have to continue to live with restrictions at least initially. Visiting bans, for example, will stay in place in areas where the coronavirus epidemic is particularly bad.