‘Schools should reopen’: Germany moves towards lockdown exit as coronavirus cases drop

Germany is moving towards a progressive lifting of restrictions linked to the coronavirus outbreak as new infections fall and the number of deaths remains far below its European neighbours.

'Schools should reopen': Germany moves towards lockdown exit as coronavirus cases drop
Experts have said Germany's schools should reopen as soon as possible. Archive photo: DPA

The nation's Academy of Sciences Leopoldina recommended Monday a gradual relaxing of restrictions in stages if new infections stabilise at a low level and personal hygiene measures to avoid spread of the coronavirus are maintained.

The Academy's findings are to form the basis for a decision Wednesday by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the heads of Germany's 16 regions about whether to extend restrictions imposed in mid-March that are set to expire on Sunday.

As of Monday April 13th, there were more than 127,800 confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany, according to Johns Hopkins University figures. 

Of the total, around 60,260 people have reported themselves to have fully recovered from the virus. With around 3,000 deaths from Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, Germany is far behind other big European nations with much larger death tolls.

Over the weekend, Germany's Health Minister Jens Spahn had already cued up a phased easing of restrictions that may vary by region.

He did not specify which sectors in Europe's largest economy could first see loosened restrictions.

READ ALSO: Germany could see 'gradual return to normality' after Easter holidays

How should Germany come out of lockdown?

The Academy of Sciences Leopoldina report stated that “criteria and strategies for a gradual return to normality” should be developed.

The prerequisites for relaxation are that the number of new infections remain at a low level, that the health care system is not overloaded and that regular patient care is possible.

The experts recommended reopening schools as soon as possible, starting with primary and middle schools.

They said most child care facilities, such as Kitas, should initially only open to a very limited extent because smaller children would likely not be able to follow hygiene and distance rules well.

Distance learning should be used in secondary schools initially.

The researchers also recommend the mandatory use of face masks in future. “The wearing of mouth and nose protection should become mandatory as an additional measure in certain areas such as public transport,” said experts.

If infection rates remain low and the health system is not overburdened, retail and catering outlets could also be opened gradually. Travel could then also be permitted again – with strict regulations.

Researchers said the government must find ways to ensure people adhere to protective measures, like social distancing rules and increased hygiene.

READ ALSO: When and how will Germany's lockdown measures end?

People walking in the rain in Frankfurt on Monday. Photo: DPA

Mobile phone tracking

According to the research team, Germany should also advocate using mobile phone data on a voluntary basis in order to gain a better overview of the epidemic.

The scientists consider it indispensable to “substantially improve the collection of data on the infection and immunity status of the population”.

However, any hope for a quick end to all restrictions was dashed by the scientific committee: the pandemic would dominate economic and social life “for months to come”, they said.

INTERVIEW: How Germany is gearing up for virus-tracing app

More testing and climate protection

The Leopoldina report also calls for significantly more testing. So far, tests are being conducted mainly on people who have shown symptoms. This is not enough, because many people with coronavirus have no symptoms – and yet could possibly infect others, say researchers.

Therefore, studies are needed to determine the percentage of infected people in a representative sample.

The scientists also warned against neglecting climate protection in the corona crisis. “The development of a climate-friendly economy” should continue to be the goal of politics.

Economic stimulus packages should therefore be linked to sustainability goals.

Ensure acceptance by the population

The scientists also said it was of huge importance for the public to accept all measures in place.

Researchers said restrictions always had to be temporary  – and that the decision-making processes were made transparent.

The authorities should also not lean too heavily on punishments for those who flout rules, and should instead focus on appeals for personal responsibility.

“In principle, standards are most likely to be followed if they are clear, unambiguous and comprehensible,” says the Leopoldina report.

READ ALSO: 'The situation is fragile': Merkel urges Germans urged to stick to coronavirus restrictions

The researchers said politicians should now draw up a timetable for these measures.

In addition, extra help was needed for those people who were particularly vulnerable in the crisis. These include elderly people living alone, refugees, migrants without German language skills and homeless people.

The academy includes social scientists as well as medical researchers among its team of experts.

The head of the Academy, Gerald Haug, said these measures could only go forward accompanied by an obligation to wear a face mask while riding in public transport to prevent a resurgence of infections.

“Every citizen should in the future have this type of protection for their mouth and nose and wear it each time social distancing measures can't be respected,” he told the weekly Der Spiegel.

With reporting by Yannick Pasquet

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Germany to bring in new Covid rules ahead of ‘difficult’ winter

With infection numbers shooting up once again in Germany, states are set to bring in a new set of Covid measures on October 1st.

Germany to bring in new Covid rules ahead of 'difficult' winter

From Saturday, masks will no longer be required on commercial flights, though people will still be expected to wear an FFP2 mask on long-distance trains.

States will also be given the option to introduce mandatory masks in other public indoor spaces, including on local public transport and in schools. If they choose to bring in masks, they’ll also have the freedom to introduce exceptions to masks for people who are recently vaccinated or who have tested negative for Covid.

States will also be able to introduce compulsory testing in schools and nurseries.

READ ALSO: German states likely to keep mask mandate on public transport

Speaking at a press conference alongside Robert Koch Institute (RKI) chair Lothar Wieler on Friday, German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach defended the decision to keep Covid rules in place when other countries in Europe have largely got rid of their pandemic measures. 

“It’s not for me to criticise what other countries are doing,” said Lauterbach. “We have a particularly difficult winter ahead of us due to the energy crisis, we don’t want to make it worse through the Covid crisis.”

The SPD politician also defended plans for mandatory masks for residents and staff in nursing and care homes. Having 40 or 50 vulnerable people together in an enclosed space is “extremely high-risk”, he said. 

Under the new rules set to be introduced on Saturday, residents of care homes will be expected to wear FPP2 masks in all common areas of the home, and will only be able to take them off in their bedrooms.

“For people in nursing homes, the FFP2 mask requirement means a considerable cut in their quality of life,” Regina Görner, chairwoman of the Federal Association of Senior Citizens’ Organisations (Bagso), told DPA:

“The nursing home is their home, in which they can then no longer move freely without a mask.”

Visitors to nursing homes, meanwhile, will have to supply a negative Covid test, while staff will be tested three times a week. 

Under the autumn and winter rules, people across Germany will also be required to wear an FFP2 mask at their doctor’s surgery and in medical outpatient facilities such as hospitals.

“We’re better prepared than last autumn,” Lauterbach told reporters on Friday. “We have the infection numbers under control, we have this wave under control.” 

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS – Germany’s new Covid-19 rules for autumn

Steep rise in cases

As the weather turns colder, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) has reported a steep rise in respiratory infections, including Covid-19.

Last week, the number of Covid patients jumped dramatically from 500,000 to 1.2 million per week, with cases rising significantly in every age group.

Meanwhile, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 people shot up from 409 on Thursday to 466 on Friday. The previous week, the weekly incidence stood at 294 per 100,000 people. 

The numbers are believed to be partially inflated by the ongoing Oktoberfest beer festival, which is being held for the first time since the pandemic started. In Munich, the location of the festival, the weekly incidence is almost 800. 

Speaking at the press conference in Berlin on Friday, RKI chair Wieler warned people not to get complacent about the threat of infection.

“A mild course of illness simply means not ending up in hospital,” he said. “We should be conscious of how much risk we want take on, and how much risk we can avoid.”

RKI chief Lothar Wieler

Robert Koch Institute chair Lothar Wieler (l) and Heath Minister Karl Lauterbach (r) hold a press conference in Berlin on Friday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

Despite the looming energy crisis, the RKI boss advised the public to ensure that rooms were well ventilated, adding that spaces normally occupied by a large number of people should be aired out more regularly.

He also advised people with Covid symptoms to stay home until they felt better in order to avoid passing on any infections, and warned that people should be especially careful to avoid contact with vulnerable people.

“Just like before, these people need our solidarity,” he said. 

Self-isolation and quarantine rules vary from state to state, but people who test positive for Covid generally have to isolate for a minimum of five days and a maximum of 10.

In some cases, people can take an additional Covid test in order to end their isolation early.

The RKI has also recommended that people wear a mask in public enclosed spaces. 

READ ALSO: What will the Covid situation in Germany look like this autumn?