What can we expect from Germany's plans to ease lockdown?
Pressure is growing on the German government and states to relax lockdown measures. Are opening steps on the cards?
Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders are to meet on Wednesday to discuss the coronavirus crisis, and a roadmap out of the shutdown.
At the last meeting, where they decided hairdressers could open from March 1st, we were told more steps could be taken only when states reach 35 new cases per 100,000 people in seven days.
However, numbers are stagnating slightly and this target is going to be more difficult to reach.
Increased rapid testing will also be a big topic at the meeting.
So is the lockdown going to end this month?
Probably not - but it looks like there will be some change. Whatever the case, Merkel will push for restrictions to be relaxed at a slow pace.
The current measures – which include the closure (apart from takeaway food and deliveries) of restaurants, bars, cafes, leisure facilities and cultural centres as well as contact restrictions – remain in place until at least March 7th.
According to German media site Business Insider, a leaked paper shows the government and states want to extend the shutdown in principle until the end of March - but there is hope of a plan for reopening public life.
The proposal says that an 'opening corridor' could be possible when regions manage to achieve a stable 7-day incidence below 70 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people.
For an idea of current numbers: Germany as a whole currently stands at an average of around 66 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people. The only state below 50 new infections per 100,000 people in seven days is Rhineland-Palatinate, with 49.7. A few states are hovering above the level of 50.
There would be conditions for relaxing measures at a higher incidence rate though, including an increase in rapid testing (more on that below).
There are also plans put forward by states, including Berlin, on how to reopen looking at various factors such as the capacity of intensive care beds. These will likely be discussed at Wednesday's meeting too.
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What might reopen soon then?
According to the Business Insider report, the government and states want to reach a more uniform line on sectors that are already beginning to open. Some states, like Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg among others, have allowed the likes of zoos, flower markets, garden centres and DIY stores to open their doors from March 1st.
If this is agreed, it would allow all states to reopen these kinds of facilities.
What the focus is on after that is up in the air, and will be discussed at the meeting.
According to government sources who talked to Business Insider, there is talk that restaurants with outdoor areas could open back up with strict hygiene concepts.
The idea of opening shops for customers with an appointment ("Click & Meet"), as planned or already implemented by Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saxony-Anhalt and Hesse, is also under discussion. Customers could then book appointments with retailers via internet sites, by phone or by email.
Meanwhile Economics Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) and the economics ministers of the 16 federal states are also pushing for more opening steps.
"Reaching a general nationwide or regional incidence of 35 or below is currently not considered necessary, provided the additional safeguards are in place," the economic experts reportedly said in a paper.
According to RND, the paper from the Economics Ministry also says the availability of a sufficient number of rapid antigen tests and self-tests could make a decisive contribution to enabling reopenings.
So what about more testing then?
All opening steps hinge on the rollout of Covid-19 rapid antigen tests, according to reports.
Germany was supposed to introduce free rapid testing for all on March 1st, but this rollout was delayed last week over worries that the logistics had not been thought through.
The details will be talked about at the federal-state meeting and the initiative is expected to come into force soon.
On Monday the Health Ministry put together a proposal that said everyone in Germany should be able to take a rapid test twice a week free of charge by trained staff - for example, in test centres or surgeries.
Home self-administered Covid-19 tests will also soon be on the market. Germany also wants to ramp up its PCR testing again after scaling back over winter.
What is the government saying on the record?
The German government continues to urge for a cautious approach ahead of consultations with the states on possible further easing of restrictions.
"We are now in a phase of hope, thank God. But it cannot and must not be a phase of carelessness," Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said in Berlin on Monday.
He referred to falling numbers of coronavirus patients in intensive care units, increasing numbers of people getting vaccinated, and the mass availability of rapid tests in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, he said, there has been an upward trend in new infections, and new, more contagious virus variants are spreading further.
Seibert emphasised that schools, daycare centres and now hairdressers, among other things, have already been a big opening step.
Therefore, it makes sense to first observe the effects and then cautiously take the next steps, he said.
Meanwhile, people are becoming impatient. A new survey found a majority of Germans are in favour of relaxing the lockdown measures.
It's safe to say that right now things are a little bit up in the air but there is a lot of pressure for the government and states to at least provide a plan on how the country can get back to some kind of normality. We'll report on the developments in the coming days.