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Merkel ‘greatly concerned’ as public life in Germany starts to reopen

Chancellor Angela Merkel is "greatly concerned" that virus-fighting discipline among the German public may ebb as the country takes its first steps out of a month-long lockdown, she said at a telephone conference on Monday.

Merkel 'greatly concerned' as public life in Germany starts to reopen
A sign hangs in a store in Bochum, North Rhine-Westphalia stating that it's "open regularly" from Monday at 11 am. Photo: DPA

The veteran leader warned against “discussion orgies” about opening up society, in a telephone conference with leaders of her centre-right CDU party on Monday morning, participants in the call said.

Merkel urged Germans to stay disciplined in fighting the coronavirus pandemic as the country began easing some curbs, warning that there was a long way to go before claiming victory.

“We stand at the beginning of the pandemic and are still a long way from being out of the woods,” she told journalists, saying that it would be a “crying shame if we were to stumble into a relapse with our eyes wide open”.

She also also urged the public to maintain social distancing measures, such as keeping 1.5 metres apart and avoiding gatherings of more than two people, voicing her “scepticism” and “huge concern” over the population's discipline.

After an apparent race among regional leaders last month to appear the toughest in announcing lockdown measures, some politicians have begun pushing for even faster loosening than the reopening of smaller shops and schools. 

READ ALSO: Germany starts to slowly open as coronavirus deemed 'under control'

Business lobbies have been pressuring the government to move faster, but initial steps agreed between Berlin and state capitals are tentative.

From Monday, shops up to 800 square metres can reopen across Germany as long as they impose hygiene controls, while next week will see selected cohorts of pupils return to classrooms.

Differing schedules

Germany has been largely spared the worst of the coronavirus pandemic that has devastated some of its European neighbours, with deaths well below hard-hit Italy, Spain and France.

It currently has over 145,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and 4,624 deaths, among the lowest fatality rate in Europe due in part to widespread testing and intensive care capacity. Of the cases, 91,500 people are reported to have recovered.

Widespread lockdown measures were rolled out last month in line with many of its neighbours, restricting non-essential outings and closing most shops except for supermarkets and pharmacies.

As its closely watched person-to-person infection rate fell below one last week — meaning each infected person was contaminating less than one person, down from five previously — Merkel and state leaders decided to ease the lockdown.

Some leading politicians have also been critical of the measures, which vary widely across Germany's 16 states. 

Some states, such as the northeastern Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, have seen zoos and fitness studios reopen whereas others, such as Berlin's neighbouring Brandenburg allow for some registered gatherings of up to 20 people. 

A sign stating that “Everything will be good” hangs in the window of an ice cream shop in Mainz, Rhineland-Palatinate that opened at noon on Monday. Photo: DPA

In eastern Saxony state, pupils taking final examinations began streaming back to classrooms, two weeks ahead of their peers in other states, where school gates will reopen only from May 4th.

Masks have however been required on public transport and in shops in the eastern state.

In the Saxon city of Leipzig, people waiting to get on trams and buses had their faces covered.

Though not yet obligatory, the German government “strongly advises” wearing a mask in public.

Bavaria on Monday said that it was joining Saxony in requiring face coverings.

Manuela Fischer, opening up her clothing store in Leipzig, said she was “incredibly happy” to be welcoming shoppers again.

In some states such as the capital Berlin, meanwhile, it would take a few more days before shops reopen.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about plans for Germany's states to ease lockdown

Hesse's state premier Volker Bouffier (CDU) as well as parliamentary member Julia Klöckner (CDU) spoke out on Monday against the loosing of restrictions in Social Democratic-led Rhineland-Palatinate. 

They include opening shopping malls and zoos, as well as allowing some party events to take place again. 

Some of Merkel's conservative party colleagues echoed her caution.

“We will not be able to go back to our normal lives for a long time,” said Armin Laschet, the state premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, the country's most populous region.

'Under control'

On Friday, health minister Jens Spahn said the pandemic was “once again under control” in Germany, as the number of people infected by each person with the virus dropped below one.

But Merkel warned Monday that unless people continue to follow rules and advice like keeping their distance from others and wearing masks, the picture could again worsen.

She and her ministers will track the impact of the opening up measures over the coming days until April 30th, when the lockdown is currently set to expire.

But it could be May 8th or 9th before the true impact from reopening businesses and schools is seen, Merkel said, according to the sources.

So far most Germans have expressed overwhelming support for the `lockdown, with around 90 percent backing it according to polls earlier this month.

 

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COVID-19 RULES

Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

German health ministers say that tougher Covid restrictions should come back into force if a serious wave emerges in autumn.

Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

Following a video meeting on Monday, the health ministers of Germany’s 16 states said tougher restrictions should be imposed again if they are needed. 

“The corona pandemic is not over yet – we must not be deceived by the current declining incidences,” said Saxony-Anhalt’s health minister Petra Grimm-Benne, of the Social Democrats, who currently chairs the Conference of Health Ministers (GMK).

According to the GMK, new virus variants are expected to appear in autumn and winter. Over the weekend, federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) also warned that the more dangerous Delta variant could return to Germany. “That is why the federal Ministry of Health should draw up a master plan to combat the corona pandemic as soon as possible and coordinate it with the states,” Grimm-Benne said.

Preparations should also include an amendment of the Infection Protection Act, ministers urged. They want to see the states given powers to react to the infection situation in autumn and winter. They called on the government to initiate the legislative process in a timely manner, and get the states actively involved.

The current Infection Protection Act expires on September 23rd this year. Germany has loosened much of its Covid restrictions in the last months, however, face masks are still compulsory on public transport as well as on planes. 

READ ALSO: Do people in Germany still have to wear Covid masks on planes?

The health ministers said that from autumn onwards, it should be possible for states to make masks compulsory indoors if the regional infection situation calls for it. Previously, wearing a Covid mask was obligatory in Germany when shopping and in restaurants and bars when not sitting at a table. 

Furthermore, the so-called 3G rule for accessing some venues and facilities – where people have to present proof of vaccination, recovery, or a negative test – should be implemented again if needed, as well as other infection protection rules, the ministers said. 

Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek, of the CSU, welcomed the ministers’ unanimous call for a revision of the Infection Protection Act. “The states must be able to take all necessary infection protection measures quickly, effectively, and with legal certainty,” he said.

North Rhine-Westphalia’s health minister Karl-Josef Laumann (CDU) warned that no one should “lull themselves into a false sense of security”.

“We must now prepare for the colder season and use the time to be able to answer important questions about the immunity of the population or the mechanisms of infection chains,” he said.

On Tuesday, Germany reported 86,253 Covid infections within the latest 24 hour period, as well as 215 Covid-related deaths. The 7-day incidence stood at 437.6 infections per 100,000 people. However, experts believe there could be twice as many infections because lots of cases go unreported. 

READ ALSO: Five things to know about the Covid pandemic in Germany right now

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