‘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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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.