Coronavirus: Merkel warns German states are loosening lockdown ‘too hastily’

Chancellor supports gradual easing of restrictions but fears public complacency

German chancellor Angela Merkel: warnmed against depending on hope as a principle. Photograph: REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

German chancellor Angela Merkel: warnmed against depending on hope as a principle. Photograph: REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

 

Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that Germany’s federal states are loosening the Covid-19 lockdown “hastily, too hastily”.

The German leader said on Thursday she supports a gradual easing of restrictions, but feared the pace of the lockdown – combined with public complacency and impatience – could trigger a second wave of infection and another lockdown.

Germany’s decentralised system gives its 16 federal states considerable health competences. Since Monday, each has taken its own approach to re-opening schools and shops and all have introduced some form of obligation to wear face masks in public. But the looser lockdown rules and warm spring weather have seen crowded parks and shopping precincts in some regions.

“I see it as my obligation to warn against depending on hope as a principle, when this does not convince me,” said Dr Merkel. “Let’s not gamble away what we’ve achieved and risk a relapse ... it would be real pity if we were punished by premature hope.”

She was echoing the words of Dr Christian Drosten, a leading virologist, adviser to the chancellor and one of the architects of Germany’s winning combination of early, widespread Covid-19 testing.

“We belong to one of the few countries in the world where the numbers are retreating,” he said. “I regret so much these days to see how we are gambling away completely this lead.”

In his popular weekly podcast, Dr Drosten warned that complacency could see a second wave hit Germany “with force”.

Germany’s Covid-19 death toll has hit 5,100; of around 146,000 registered cases, nearly 100,000 have recovered.

The number of new coronavirus cases in Germany is close to a three-week low, but the chancellor warned that these numbers reflected infection activity of 10-12 days earlier. The effects of this week’s looser lockdown, she said, would come in data with a similar delay.

Dr Merkel thanked citizens for accepting movement and other restrictions that were an “imposition on democracy”. But she said that, like Covid-19, such impositions would be part of daily life for some time to come.

In contrast to the Trump administration’s stance, the German leader praised the World Health Organisation and said the UN body was essential for a co-ordinated response to the pandemic. “For the federal government, the WHO is an indispensable partner and we support it in its mandate,” she said.

Donald Trump announced last week he was halting US funding for the WHO, which he accused of being pro-China and of mismanaging the coronavirus crisis.

Late on Wednesday evening Germany’s grand coalition government agreed an additional €10 billion worth of pandemic measures. Sales tax for restaurants will drop from 19 to seven per cent for a year from July. In the era of home-schooling, a €500 million fund for schools will provide €150 each for students to buy or upgrade digital equipment.

The state will also boost its salary contributions to employees on so-called short-time work. At present, Germany pays up to 67 per cent of the salary of workers laid off temporarily. This will now increase to a maximum of 87 per cent.