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ANGELA MERKEL

‘Let’s not risk a setback’: Merkel warns against easing Germany’s coronavirus rules too quickly

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday she was concerned about states relaxing coronavirus lockdown rules too quickly and warned that Germany is still at the start of the pandemic.

'Let's not risk a setback': Merkel warns against easing Germany's coronavirus rules too quickly
Angela Merkel in the Bundestag on Thursday. Photo: DPA

“We are experiencing quite extraordinary times,” said the Chancellor while addressing the Bundestag on Thursday, adding that life under the conditions imposed to stem the spread of coronavirus in Germany had already been going on for some time.

Under the measures introduced in March, gatherings of more than two people in public are banned while pubs and restaurants are closed.

All of Germany's states have also now opted to make face masks on public transport mandatory – with some extending the obligation to shops, too.

“Nobody likes to hear this: we are not in the final phase of this pandemic; we're just at the beginning,” Merkel said. “We will have to live with it for a long time yet.”

Merkel said that even as the rate of coronavirus infections slowed, the country was on the “thinnest of thin ice”, underlining how fragile the situation is.

On Thursday morning, Germany had registered more than 150,600 confirmed coronavirus infections, according to Johns Hopkins University figures.

Of that total, 5,315 people have died and 103,300 people have recovered.

READ ALSO: Each corona-hit person infecting 'fewer than one' in Germany

'Let's not risk a setback'

The Chancellor praised the way people in Germany had stuck to social distancing rules, saying the decisions to limit freedoms had not been easy for her, but they were necessary.

“Hardly any other decision in my time as Chancellor has been as difficult for me as the restriction of personal liberties,” she said. Merkel added that the loneliness and difficult times people may be experiencing because of the pandemic weighs on her.

Germany has taken its first steps to loosening the lockdown this week, with many shops reopening.

Merkel and the 16 leaders of Germany's states decided on a plan for exiting lockdown last week – but federal states have been drawing up their own timetables.

Merkel said she was “worried” that some of the states were easing restrictions too quickly. On Monday The veteran leader warned against “discussion orgies” about opening up society.

She had urged Germans instead to stay disciplined in fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

“Let's not gamble what we've achieved and risk a setback,” said Merkel on Thursday, reiterating the message.

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Merkel also praised hospital staff and others on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic, such as public service workers.

“Our health care system has stood the test so far,” she said. “Every corona patient receives the best treatment possible.”

The Chancellor added that Germany would take more steps to produce personal protective gear for hospital staff.

Merkel also said Germany was ready to pay into a “significantly higher” EU budget to help the bloc cope with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking ahead of crunch talks between EU leaders on a giant rescue package, Merkel said: “In the spirit of solidarity, we should be prepared to make completely different, that is to say significantly higher contributions to the European budget over a set period.”

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COVID-19 RULES

Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

Bavaria's state premier Markus Söder (CSU) has announced plans for a "prompt" end to mandatory masks on buses and trains.

Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

If infection levels and hospitalisations remain low, the end of the mask-wearing rule could come as soon as December or January.

“We are convinced that the mask requirement in public transport could also be phased out either in mid-December or early next year, if the numbers remain reasonably stable and there are no new mutations,” Söder explained on Monday, following a meeting with the CSU executive committee. 

A decision on when to end the measure would be made “promptly”, he added.

The CSU politician had said last week that the sinking infection rates meant that compulsory masks were no longer appropriate and that the mandate could be changed to a recommendation. 

No set date for change

The latest version of Bavaria’s Infection Protection Act – which lays out an obligation to wear masks on public transport as one of the few remaining Covid rules – is currently due to expire on December 9th.

State ministers could decide whether to let obligatory masks on buses and trains lapse on this date as early as next week, or they could decide to initially extend the legislation and set an alternative date for ending the rule.

Regardless of their decision, FFP2 masks will continue to be mandatory on long-distance public transport until at least April next year, when the nationwide Infection Protection Act is due to expire.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

Speaking to Süddeutsche Zeitung on Monday after the meeting of the Council of Ministers, Florian Herrmann (CSU), head of the State Chancellery, confirmed that Covid-19 had been discussed in passing.

However, no decisions or discussions were made on how to proceed after the expiry of the regulation, he said.

According to Herrmann, the fact that Covid was no longer the “dominant topic” in the cabinet under “enormous tension” shows “that we are returning to normality” in a gradual transition from pandemic to endemic. 

As of Wednesday, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 people stood at 108 in Bavaria, down from 111 the previous day. However, experts have cast doubt on how meaningful the incidence is in light of the fact that fewer people are taking tests.

Nevertheless, the 133 hospital beds occupied by Covid patients in the Free State falls well below the 600 threshold for a ‘red alert’. With Omicron causing less severe courses of illness than previous variants, politicians have increasingly focussed on hospitalisation statistics to gauge the severity of the situation.

‘A risk-benefit trade-off’

Bavaria is the second federal state to announce plans to relax its mask-wearing rules in recent weeks.

On November 14th, the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein announced that it would be ending obligatory FFP2 masks on public transport and urged other states to do the same. From January 2023, masks on public transport will only be recommended rather than mandated for passengers on local buses and trains. 

However, the Federal Ministry of Health has urged states not to loosen their rules too quickly.

Given that infection rates are likely to spike again in winter, “there’s no basis for loosening restrictions”, said Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD).

Physicians are also split on whether an end to masks on public transport is appropriate.

READ ALSO: Will Germany get rid of masks on public transport?

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) speaks at the German Hospital Day in Düsseldorf on November 14th. Lauterbach is against the lifting of the mask-wearing rule. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Christoph Spinner, a virologist at the University Hospital in Munich, told Süddeutsche Zeitung he believed it was time to put the decision on mask-wearing back into the hands of individuals.

“Why not? The incidences are low, the danger of Covid-19 has dropped significantly and mortality has also decreased,” he said. 

But the Bavarian General Practitioners’ Association spoke out against the move, arguing that – unlike a trip to a restaurant or cinema – people often have no choice but to travel on public transport.

“If the obligation to wear a mask in public transport is maintained, this will help to protect against a Covid infection on the way to work by bus or train – especially in view of the discontinuation of the obligation to isolate in the event of a Covid infection,” they explained.

Bavaria is one of four states to have recently ended mandatory isolation for people who test positive for Covid. Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein both scrapped their isolation mandate last week, while Hesse removed its obligation on Tuesday. 

READ ALSO: Four German states call for end to mandatory Covid isolation

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