Merkel declares ‘new phase’ of pandemic with gradual easing of Covid-19 measures

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday unveiled plans to gradually ease virus curbs in Europe's top economy, caving to pressure from regional leaders and the public for more freedom after months of shutdowns.

Merkel declares 'new phase' of pandemic with gradual easing of Covid-19 measures
Angela Merkel on Wednesday. Photo: DPA

Declaring a “new phase” in the pandemic, Merkel said more socialising between households would be allowed from Monday.

Two households will be able to meet with up to five people. Currently a household can meet with one other person.

In regions with lower rates, contact rules will be loosened further.

In principle the shutdown will be extended until March 28th. But book shops, flower stores and garden centres will also reopen nationwide from Monday. Some states have already started opening these stores.

READ ALSO: Germany extends shutdown until March 28th – but loosens some measures

Further reopenings will be closely tied to local infection rates, Merkel said after talks lasting around 9 hours with state premiers.

Shops and other areas of public life will be allowed to reopen in areas with fewer than 50 new infections per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period, although some facilities will be able to reopen before that point with an appointment booking system.

Merkel had pushed for an incidence rate of 35 but was forced to back down in the face of resistance from regional premiers.

Here are the main points:

– Germany is to extend the shutdown until March 28th but aims to gradually ease measures.

– Relaxing restrictions will involve a five-step plan, with each step taken every 14 days if Covid-19 infection cases remain stable or fall.

– An emergency brake will be put in place if Covid numbers rise, putting regions back into shutdown.

– Residents will be offered one free rapid coronavirus test a week from March 8th.

– Vaccines to be ramped up and AstraZeneca given to over 65s.

There may be differences on reopening plans by federal states. The country has been in a shutdown which has largely seen public life come to a halt since the beginning of November 2020.

‘Spring 2021 will be different from spring 2020’

“Today we can speak of hope and of the transition to a new phase,” Merkel said.

The Chancellor added that the pandemic has resulted in difficult restrictions “in a way that has never been seen before in Germany”.

However she said the measures taken had resulted in “success of which we can be proud”.

Intensive care units in Germany have been brought back “from the brink of overload”. And despite the spread of new virus mutations, the infection figures are “still the lowest in Europe”, Merkel said.

However, Merkel highlighted “the danger” of a possible third wave caused by the British variant of the coronavirus. The more contagious strain now accounts for almost half of all new infections in Germany.

She went on to say that spring 2021 “will be different from the spring of a year ago” because of “two helpers we didn’t have in 2020” – vaccines and testing.

“Vaccination is the way out of the pandemic,” said Merkel.

Merkel said most residents of nursing homes and staff were now vaccinated.

“We talked today about how we can push vaccination further,” said Merkel, adding that the country planned to increase the interval between the first and second dose of vaccine, as recommended by the Standing Commission on Vaccination (Stiko).

Merkel also said Germany will soon authorise the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 vaccine for people over the age of 65.

Germany had previously said it lacked sufficient data to greenlight the jab for those over 65, but Merkel said that had changed thanks to recent encouraging studies.

More testing

Merkel said the relaxations of rules will be backed up by rapid and self-Covid testing. Every citizen should be able to get a Covid-19 antigen test once a week free of charge, she said.

“This offer will apply from March 8th, and the relevant test centres will be made available locally for this purpose,” she said. Schools and daycare will continue to use self-administered tests.

The next round of talks are due to take place in the week of March 22nd, probably on March 24th.

Campaign mode

It remains to be seen whether the latest announcements will be enough to quiet the critics.

With non-essential shops, tourism and restaurants shuttered since late last year, business federations fear a wave of bankruptcies despite the government’s massive coronavirus aid packages.

And although Merkel was praised for her handling of the first coronavirus wave last spring, the country has coped far less well with the second wave.

After more than 15 years in power, Merkel is due to bow out at the next elections in September.

Observers say her legacy could be tarnished by missteps made during the pandemic.

Opposition parties and even Merkel’s junior coalition, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), are already in campaign mode and have not shied away from attacking the chancellor.

SPD co-chief Norbert Walter-Borjans has described Merkel’s crisis coordination as “lacking”.

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, has openly and repeatedly slammed Germany’s slow and bureaucratic vaccination efforts.

As of Wednesday, just 4.4 million Germans had received their first jab, amounting to 5.3 percent of the population.

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EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

Due to high Covid infection numbers throughout the summer, it’s now possible to get a sick note from a doctor over the phone again for some illnesses. Here’s what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

What’s happened?

In spring 2020, German authorities changed the law so that people with a mild upper respiratory tract illness, such as the common cold, were able to get an incapacity to work certificate or AU-Bescheinigung by simply calling and speaking to their GP.

The rule was extended several times and finally reversed on June 1st this year due to falling infection figures. Since then people have had to go back to the practice – or do a video call if the doctor’s office has that system in place – to get a sick note.

Now, due to a decision by the Joint Federal Committee, the regulation has been reintroduced and patients can call their GP again for a sick note.

Can I get a sick note over the phone for any illness?

No. As before, the regulation only applies to patients suffering from a mild upper respiratory tract illness. Though Covid has not explicitly been named in the announcement, it seems that it is intended to be covered by the regulation.

If the doctor is convinced that the patient is unfit for work after a telephone consultation, then they can issue a sick note for up to seven days.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The changes around doctor’s notes in Germany you should know

If the symptoms persist after seven days, the certificate can be extended once more for another week.

Why now?

According to the Chairman of the G-BA, Josef Hecken, the regulation has been introduced now as a response to rising Covid numbers and in anticipation of the cold and flu season in the coming months: “We want to avoid full waiting rooms in doctors’ offices and the emergence of new infection chains,” he said.

The telephone sick leave rule is a simple, proven and uniform nationwide solution for that, he said. The rule is also necessary because video consultation hours are not yet available everywhere.

What else should I know?

The health insurer DAK is calling for telephone sick leave in the case of light respiratory diseases to be made possible on a permanent basis in Germany. DAK’s CEO Andreas Storm said that this should “not always be up for debate, because it has proven itself.” 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about making a doctor’s appointment in Germany

The social association VdK also welcomed the reintroduction of the rule. The VdK’s President Verena Bentele said that the regulation would help to protect high-risk groups in particular from potential infections.

What are the rules to know about sick notes in Germany?

Germany has a strict system in place. If you are sick, you need to give your employer a Krankmeldung (notification of sickness) before the start of work on the first day (of your illness).

However, you also need to hand in a Krankschreibung (doctor’s note) on the fourth day of your illness. Some employments contracts, however, require you to submit a sick not earlier than the fourth day so check with your boss or HR on that point.