‘We have to think in phases’: Is this how Germany can return to life with coronavirus?

Lower Saxony is the first German state to present a plan for returning to everyday life with coronavirus. We took a closer look to see if it can serve as a blueprint for other parts of Germany.

'We have to think in phases': Is this how Germany can return to life with coronavirus?
People wearing face masks on public transport in Hanover on April 27th. Photo: DPA

Whether its education, tourism or the leisure industry, Lower Saxony wants to get back to business, at least as much as possible during the coronavirus crisis.

The western German state has drawn up proposals to show how the lockdown can be relaxed and how people can get back to some kind of regular daily life.

“We have to think in phases,” said state premier Stephan Weil, of the centre-left Social Democrats. He presented the five-step plan “for a new daily routine with corona” – the first such concept to emerge from Germany.

The state wants to open restaurants and the tourism industry from May 11th, while outdoor pools could allow a limited number of guests later in the month.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is meeting with state leaders on Wednesday to discuss how Germany can relax measures put in place to stem the spread of Covid-19 in Germany.

But as The Local has been reporting, states have been increasingly going out on their own when it comes to tightening or loosening coronavirus measures. The state of Saxony-Anhalt eased the nationwide ban on contact on Monday, and now is allowing five people to meet instead of two.

READ ALSO: How Germany's states are pushing to relax coronavirus lockdown measures

Meanwhile, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania wants to restart its tourist industry and allow visitors to head to the Baltic Sea again by the end of May. 

Chairs stacked up at a cafe in Hanover during the coronavirus lockdown. Photo: DPA

'People have a right to know'

For Lower Saxony, which is home to the capital Hanover, state premier Weil says the plan was drawn up to “give the people in our state reasonably reliable prospects for the coming weeks”.

After all the uncertainties, Weil said, people “have a right to know when and which further easing measures can be expected” – provided that the infection figures continue to decline.

As of Tuesday May 5th there were around 10,400 confirmed coronavirus infections in Lower Saxony, according to Johns Hopkins University figures. Of those, around 460 people have died and 8.600 people have reported themselves to have recovered.

Lower Saxony, shown on the map below, is the second largest state in size after Bavaria and has around 7.9 million residents.

At the moment Weil is holding off on implementing the new measures, and intends to wait until after the federal-state consultations on May 6th to make firm decisions. Yet he made it clear he wants his government to follow a regional plan rather than towing the federal line.

READ ALSO: Merkel warns Germans to 'remain disciplined' despite easing coronavirus measures

Here's a look at the proposals to reopen Germany's second largest state, which could offer a blueprint for other states.

  • For the trade and service sector: following the opening of smaller shops under 800 square metres, car dealerships, hairdressing salons and bookstores, the restriction on the size of the sales area would be eased in a second phase from May 11th. And then again in the third phase from May 25th. All personal services, such as health and beauty facilities, would be permitted again under certain conditions
  • For tourism, which is particularly important in the Harz Mountain region and on the North Sea coast, a gentle restart would be possible in the second phase from May 11th
  • It would then be possible to rent out holiday homes and apartments, with a maximum occupancy rate of 50 percent or a seven-day re-occupancy period
  • Under the plans, hotels, guesthouses and youth hostels would reopen to guests in the third stage from May 25th onwards, provided that the occupancy rate does not exceed 50 percent and other conditions are met. However, the local authorities and administrative districts can make special rules on access to particular coronavirus hotspots or to the East Frisian islands to make sure the infection rate does not rise too much
  • The state also believes the gastronomy sector can get up and running again from the second stage on May 11th, although this will be limited to restaurants, cafés and beer gardens and only with a maximum of 50 percent capacity.
  • A further opening of food and drink outlets would be possible from May 25th, according to economics minister Bernd Althusmann. Bars, pubs, and clubs, however, will have to remain closed for the foreseeable future
  • When it comes to schools, there would be a phased return in line with Germany-wide guidelines set to be announced in the coming weeks.  At the moment, classes 4, 9/10 and 13 are already back in the classroom
  • Open-air playgrounds, zoos, museums, botanical gardens and sports fields are already open again – provided that a distance of two metres can be maintained
  • In the third stage from May 25th, outdoor pools with a limited number of people could reopen under the plans, but not indoor pools and saunas
  • Cable cars, mini-golf courses and amusement parks would also be allowed to open. Weil also believes Bundesliga football games could continue without a crowd present

Despite all the loosening up of measures, a new everyday life “with corona” has to become the norm, said state premier Weil.

Stages four and five, which would come after May 25th, are not yet drawn up but Weil said there needed to be a strategy to restore at least “halfway to normal conditions”, and it all must be done cautiously.

For the time being, event and demonstration bans remain in force – as do compulsory masks and distance rules on public transport and when shopping, as well as the ban on gatherings of more than two people in public.

Lower Saxony authorities said there would not be not be a return to regular daycare and school operations before the summer holidays.

However, the state hopes to get Kitas back up and running at the beginning of August.

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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.