Snubbing Merkel pleas, German states ease coronavirus curbs further

Germany is accelerating its return to normality following strict restrictions, with regional leaders pushing back against Chancellor Angela Merkel's pleas for prudence in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

Snubbing Merkel pleas, German states ease coronavirus curbs further
A sign stating that rooms are available stands outside of a hotel in Binz, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in April. Photo: DPA

On the eve of a key meeting between Merkel and premiers of Germany's 16 states to debate a new round of easing of stay-at-home measures, the country's biggest state pre-empted talks by saying it would reopen its restaurants and hotels this month.

Under the plan to progressively restart the gastronomy and hospitality sectors, Bavaria said restaurants would first be allowed to offer outdoor dining from May 18th, before extending the opening to indoor dining a week later.

READ ALSO: Bavaria to reopen restaurants on May 18th as coronavirus cases drop

Hotels would also be allowed to welcome guests again from May 30th, in time for the Pentecost holiday long weekend.

“The time has come for a cautious reopening,” said Bavarian state premier Markus Söder, pointing to the “success” in containing the spread of the virus.

Pressure has been growing on Merkel to ease curbs on public life that have sunk the economy into a deep recession.

While shops have reopened over the last weeks, critics have complained that the pace of easing was too slow with many sectors still held back.

As regions increasingly take action going beyond those agreed in previous talks between the federal government and state leaders, Merkel had furiously complained that some were “too aggressively” pushing ahead.

Customers walk along one of Frankfurt's main shopping streets after stores reopened on April 20th. Photo: DPA

Economic casualties

But industries have warned that the economic toll of the lockdown was already devastatingly high with a recession to reach 6.3 percent for the full year.

As infection numbers fall, Merkel's critics argue that it was time to move faster to ward off further economic casualties.

Eastern states in particular, where contagion rates were far below those in the west, have picked up the pace in exiting the shutdown.

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania will allow restaurants to reopen from Saturday and hotels to follow from May 18th.

The state on the Baltic Sea coast is anxious to welcome guests again, particularly as the summer nears — an economic lifeline for the region's hospitality sector.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about travelling in Germany this summer

Another eastern state, Saxony-Anhalt, has meanwhile eased restrictions on keeping gatherings in public to two people unless they are from the same household.

On Saturday, the regional government decided to allow up to five people to gather outside.

The central state of Lower Saxony was the country's first to announce a plan for returning to normal life, including opening restaurants again on Monday.

READ ALSO: 'We have to think in phases': Is this how Germany can return to life with coronavirus?

Germany has been hailed for its success so far in preventing its health services from being overwhelmed.

Germany has a total of around 167,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, and more than 135,000 reported recoveries, according to data from Johns Hopkins University on Tuesday at 2 pm. There have been a total of 6,993 deaths from the virus.

Authorities began relaxing restrictions after the infection rate fell under 1.0 — meaning each person is infecting less than one other — as opposed to each infecting up to five or six people in March.

Despite the early success, the Robert Koch Institute has repeatedly warned of possible second or even third waves of the virus hitting the country.

With resistance growing against keeping the population at home, Merkel is expected to call on regional leaders to agree on a threshold which would trigger a new lockdown if necessary, according to Bild daily.

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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.