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ANGELA MERKEL

LATEST: Germany to begin easing coronavirus curbs in coming weeks

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday announced the first steps in undoing the coronavirus lockdown in the coming weeks, with many shops allowed to open although schools must stay closed until May 4th.

LATEST: Germany to begin easing coronavirus curbs in coming weeks
Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday. Photo: DPA

Shops up to 800 square metres will be allowed to reopen once they have “plans to maintain hygiene”, Merkel said, while schools will gradually reopen with priority given to pupils about to take exams.

Meanwhile, a ban on large public events will be upheld until August 31st to prevent possible mass transmissions of the virus.

Merkel thanked residents in Germany for complying with social distancing measures in place to stem the spread of coronavirus – but said they would need to continue.

The government and federal states decided Wednesday to keep measures in place up to and including at least May 3rd.

They include a ban on gatherings of more than two people outside who aren't from the same family or household, as well as a minimum 1.5 metre distance from others in public.

“This will continue to apply, and violations of it will continue to be punished by the authorities,” said Merkel.

The Chancellor said public life could return in Germany “in small steps”.

Here's an overview:

  • Shops up to 800 square metres will be allowed to reopen from April 20th with strict measures. Hairdressers could open from May 4th but staff must organise protective measures
  • Schools will gradually reopen from May 4th, with primary and secondary school levels returning to class first
  • The government is recommending that protective face masks be worn on public transport and in shops – though it is not mandatory
  • Major events including football matches are banned until August 31st while religious gatherings will remain banned for now
  • Restaurants, bars, cafes and cinemas will have to remain closed
  • Border controls in Germany will stay in place for another 20 days

Merkel said the next steps will be discussed by the federal and state governments on April 30th.

Reviews of the looser measures with an eye on infection rates would follow every two or three weeks, said Merkel.

Questioned on the limitations on which shops can open, she said “we have to be careful that we don't completely re-enable public activity in city centres, because then chains of infection will arise”.

“I want to thank citizens who have changed their lives, given up on social contacts, who have limited themselves, very warmly,” she added.

“Not because they wanted to do the government a favour, but because they wanted to help their fellow people. That's something very strong and important our country is experiencing.”

Merkel called again called on citizens to continue to adhere to the restrictions in the fight against the corona pandemic.

Although Germany's health service had not been overburdened, Merkel said it was “a fragile interim success”.

She said everyone would have to live with the virus as long as there were no treatment and no vaccine.

“We have to secure the success we have achieved,” she said.

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

Schools to gradually reopen from May 4th

Among the plans, schools are to reopen gradually in Germany from May 4th, starting with older pupils. And some primary school pupils will also be able to return to the classroom.

Merkel said that a “very careful, step-by-step approach” was needed.

The Conference of Education Ministers is to present a concept for further steps on how teaching can be resumed “under special hygiene and protective measures” by April 29th.

They will look at social distancing measures such as reduced class sizes.

In addition to lessons, breaks and school bus services should also be taken into account. “Every school needs a hygiene plan,”.

School authorities are called upon to create and permanently ensure hygienic conditions on site.

Major events ban

Major events are to be banned until August 31st.  This ban “effectively contributes to the containment of the coronavirus and at the same time provides urgently needed clarity for organisers, including many clubs,” the government said.

Further rules on this will be decided by the federal states.

States could differ

The timetable of exiting the lockdown could be different in individual states depending on the situation.

Bavarian state premier Markus Söder said businesses would open “a little later” than in other states.

He said he wanted to see protective face masks on public transport as a “requirement” rather than a recommendation.

Bavaria also wants to reopen schools gradually from May 11th.

Lockdown measures introduced in March

Germany's current lockdown measures were announced by Merkel on March 22nd, and were extended until April 19th.

As of Wednesday, April 15th, there were more than 132,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany, according to Johns Hopkins University figures. 

Of the total, around 68,800 people have reported themselves to have fully recovered from the virus while more than 3,400 people have died.

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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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