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Two eastern German states move to drop coronavirus restrictions

Two German states with low coronavirus infection rates announced plans to throw off key public safety precautions, sparking anger and alarm Monday in Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition.

Two eastern German states move to drop coronavirus restrictions
People dining outdoors in Dresden, Saxony on Friday. Photo: DPA

Thuringia and Saxony, both in the ex-communist east of the country, said they would “open up everything” with few exceptions from June 6th, while monitoring for new outbreaks.

READ ALSO: First German state set to end coronavirus restrictions in early June

Under Germany's federalist system, the 16 regional states have far more leeway to set policy than in more centrally governed countries such as Britain and France.

Merkel has been widely praised for keeping the coronavirus death rate in particular far lower than in many countries worldwide, even as she faced impatience from state premiers to accelerate the opening up of Europe's top economy.

But pressure has grown especially from regions less impacted by the virus to abandon national guidelines and give cities and towns the power to set the rules, while relying on “personal responsibility” for social distancing.

“I didn't say that people should start hugging each other or take off their masks to kiss each other,” Thuringia premier Bodo Ramelow told public broadcaster MDR.

Diners eating in the city centre of Eisenach, Thuringia after they were reopened earlier this month. Photo: DPA

But he said it made “no sense” to maintain crisis measures when half of the districts in his state hadn't reported any new infections in the last three weeks.

Local health and safety offices should be given the power to monitor for outbreaks and react accordingly with the support of state authorities, he added.

Following Thuringia's lead, officials in Saxony said they were also ready for a “paradigm change” in the battle against the virus.

“Instead of imposing general rules and then allowing a lot of exceptions, essentially everything will be opened up and only a few exceptions will be made for what is not possible,” regional health minister Petra Koepping said.

The announcements touched off angry reactions within Merkel's right-left “grand coalition”.

Heath Minister Jens Spahn warned that such moves ran the risk of convincing Germans they could drop their guard.

“You must not create the impression that the pandemic is over,” he told the Bild tabloid.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus outbreak in Germany is 'under control', says health minister

Lars Klingbeil, general secretary of the Social Democrats, junior partners in the coalition, accused Ramelow in particular of pandering to extremist critics of the safety measures who have staged loud protests in recent weeks.

“I expect politicians to lead and provide orientation and not be led by a few thousand people with conspiracy theories standing up in public squares,” he told Bild.

Bild reported Monday that the Merkel government intends to extend social distancing and mask wearing guidelines nationwide beyond the current deadline of June 5th.

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COVID-19 ALERT

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

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