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HEALTH

Merkel to face resistance at key meeting on coronavirus restrictions

Chancellor Angela Merkel faces a test of her authority on Wednesday as she meets Germany's 16 state premiers, many of whom have brazenly ignored her pleas for caution on easing coronavirus restrictions.

Merkel to face resistance at key meeting on coronavirus restrictions
Merkel speaking at a video conference with state premieres on April 30th. Photo: DPA

Germany began tentatively lifting its lockdown two weeks ago, opening some shops and schools, after infection rates came down.

Merkel and the state leaders agreed last week to loosen the rules further, giving religious institutions, playgrounds, museums and zoos the green light to open.

But a national consensus on aligning measures to counter the virus — which was coupled with a sharp rise in Merkel's popularity — appears to have crumbled, as many states have struck out alone to further ease lockdown rules.

'Return to normality'

Germany is eyeing an almost complete return to normality in May, with plans to send all pupils back to school and to restart the top-flight football Bundesliga, according to a draft agreement seen by AFP Wednesday.

Only the cultural sector would have to wait, as large events are still cancelled until the end of August. Borders also remain closed.

READ ALSO: Germany set to reopen all shops and schools in May

But on the eve of her discussions with regional leaders, Germany's biggest state Bavaria preempted federal measures by announcing that its restaurants would open from May 18th and hotels and guest houses from May 30th.

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

Lower Saxony, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saarland and Saxony-Anhalt have also announced their own plans for everything from restaurants to care homes.

A sign at a restaurant in Cuxhaven, Lower Saxony, stating that a restaurant will open on May 27th. Photo: DPA

Merkel has repeatedly urged Germany's states to proceed with caution when it comes to easing lockdown measures, even as Europe's top economy flounders.

“It remains absolutely important that we stay disciplined,” she said after last week's relaxing of measures, adding that the effects of the new rules would be watched carefully.

READ ALSO: Snubbing Merkel pleas, German states ease coronavirus curbs further

The restrictions — but also greater testing capacities — have seen Germany keep its death rate far lower than that of its European neighbours.

Although Germany has recorded over 160,000 coronavirus cases, it has one of
the lowest mortality rates in the world — just over 6,800 people have died.

'Resistance 2020'

But although Merkel's conservative approach won her a rise in support in the early stages of the pandemic, the complaints have grown louder in recent
weeks.

North Rhine-Westphalia state premier Armin Laschet, who has criticised Merkel's firmer stance on restrictions, told public broadcaster ARD in late April that the negative effects of lockdown must be “weighed up”.

He attacked what he said were the pessimistic predictions of some medical experts, pointing out that “40 percent of intensive care beds are empty” in his state.

Demonstrations against the lockdown were held in several German cities last weekend, and a new political movement calling itself Widerstand 2020 (Resistance 2020) claims on its website to have more than 100,000 members.

The far-right AfD, Germany's largest opposition party by number of MPs, has also attacked the lockdown measures.

But experts continue to call for restraint. The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for disease control has repeatedly warned of possible second or even third waves of the virus hitting the country.

At a briefing on Tuesday, RKI head Lothar Wieler urged vigilance.

“Social distancing is certainly the new normal and will help to ensure that the infection rate remains low,” he said.

“If we ease restrictions, this will of course increase the risk of new infections.”

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COVID-19 RULES

Four German states call for end to mandatory Covid isolation

People in Germany have to isolate at home for at least five days if they test positive for Covid. But four states want to see a change to this rule.

Four German states call for end to mandatory Covid isolation

In a joint letter, the states of Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Hesse, and Schleswig-Holstein called on Health Minister Karl Lauterbach to drop the isolation requirement for people who get a Covid infection in Germany. 

Baden-Württemberg health minister Manne Lucha, of the Greens, said there should be a move towards people taking personal responsibility rather than the state ordering an isolation period, reported the Tagesschau. 

“We should gradually get into the mode of treating a corona infection like any other infectious disease where the rule is: if you are sick, stay at home,” said the Green politician.

The rules on isolation differ slightly from state to state in Germany, but the general requirement is that people who test positive for Covid have to go into isolation at home and avoid all contact with people outside the household. The isolation period lasts at least five days or a maximum of 10 days.

In some states, and for hospital and care workers, a negative test is required to end the isolation period early.

Several politicians – as well as Andreas Gassen, chairman of the board of the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians, have previously spoken out in favour of ending all Covid isolation and quarantine obligations.

READ ALSO: Should Germany get rid of Covid mandatory isolation?

The four German states called on Lauterbach, of the Social Democrats, to change the rules by October 10th.

In their letter, they refer to Austria, where the isolation obligation has been replaced by so-called “traffic restrictions” since August 1st.

Under these rules, people who get Covid-19 have to wear an FFP2 mask for 10 days in most places, and they are not allowed to visit nursing homes and clinics. They can, however, go to their workplace.

“The end of mandatory isolation has not led to any relevant increase in reported cases in Austria,” the four German health ministers said in their letter.

They argued that much of the population in Germany is immunised, either through vaccination or infection.

However, Lauterbach has so far rejected calls to get rid of the isolation requirement. He said that due to Covid cases rising, he didn’t want to “add fuel to the fire” and increase the risk of infections occurring in companies or at gatherings.

Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek (CSU), said he was worried about lots of people having to take time off work to isolate at the same time, which could put pressure on critical infrastructure. 

Schleswig-Holstein’s health minister Kerstin von der Decken (CDU), said the adjustment of the isolation rules would be “a step on the way back to normality.”

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