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Relaxing German restrictions is far from open and shut despite new cases slowing



Rays of hope: People enjoy the sunny weather in a crowded Volkspark Friedrichshain in Berlin over the Easter weekend. Picture: Reuters

Rays of hope: People enjoy the sunny weather in a crowded Volkspark Friedrichshain in Berlin over the Easter weekend. Picture: Reuters


Rays of hope: People enjoy the sunny weather in a crowded Volkspark Friedrichshain in Berlin over the Easter weekend. Picture: Reuters

Berlin's envied urban green spaces were crowded last weekend as sun-starved Germans took to the parks to soak up the Easter sunshine.

But police in the capital said stringent social-distancing rules were, by and large, observed.

Amid signs that the growth in new coronavirus cases eased over Easter, there is pressure to relax some lockdown restrictions. This is not just an issue in Germany. As Europe's biggest economy and as one of the most successful countries in the world in dealing with Covid-19, what happens in Germany is of immediate relevance in Ireland too.

Germany is the fifth worst-hit country, but the death rate is far lower than among other countries most affected. Germany was placed second in the world after Israel in a table in a survey by the Open Knowledge Foundation, followed by South Korea, China and Austria.

At the same time, German authorities remain wary of lifting restrictions on public life, including senior experts such as Lothar Wieler, head of the Robert Koch health institute, which is leading the medical response to the outbreak.

"The measures we have introduced are having an effect... but we can't speak of containment yet, we still have high numbers each day," Mr Wieler told a news briefing.

The number of new confirmed cases in Germany fell for the third day running. According to the Johns Hopkins University data, Germany has over 130,000 cases confirmed, and nearly 3,200 deaths. Other figures from the Robert Koch institute show the number of daily infections peaked on April 2.

"I want to express my thanks to the people for their efforts, but keep your eye on the ball and don't ease up now. It's in your own interest to stick to the rules on social distancing. There is still no concrete evidence that the numbers are falling… all we have are signs that infections are not increasing, viewed over a longer time period," said Mr Wieler.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week that she was waiting for the position paper by the influential Academy of Sciences Leopoldina before making further consultations on deciding the way forward.

The Leopoldina academy is upbeat. It recommends that Germany should start to ease the lockdown imposed to contain coronavirus.

Today, Ms Merkel is due to hold a video conference with premiers in the powerful Länder, or regional states, to discuss a possible path out of the lockdown and how to manage the recession it is almost certain to cause.

In its findings, the academy recommends that physical distancing rules should remain in place, and wants to make wearing masks mandatory in public places. The position on masks marks a U-turn from earlier in the outbreak.

The academy recommends a gradual reopening of some schools, with class-sizes no greater than 15 and a focus on core subjects. Initially senior schools and classes where students are doing exams or transitioning into secondary or third-level would be prioritised.

Kindergartens should stay shut as the academy reckons that small kids are less adept at social distancing. Restaurants and shops should be allowed to gradually reopen if new infection rates remain low and stable.

The academy also wants voluntary signing up to GPS tracking to allow contact tracing, similar to the situation in South Korea. While seemingly effective in monitoring the virus, this approach has sparked fears about privacy.

There is a busy public debate about the Leopoldina academy's report.

There is not a single virologist in the list, although there was room for a theologian, and only two of the 24 experts are women.

Four professors at another important think-tank, the Helmholtz research institute, said the measures introduced so far had shown a high degree of solidarity in Germany.

Measures should "be kept in place until the epidemic can be controlled in a sustainable way", they say.

Ms Merkel is sure to make her own decision and she has the political scope to do this. The chancellor's popularity is running high at the moment. She was supposed to step down this year, but now her party, the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), will probably delay the election of a new leader until December.

Neighbouring Poland is planning to relax restrictions from Sunday, initially focused on businesses.

"We will begin the process of restarting the economy from April 19," Polish Health Minister Lukasz Szumowski told RMF FM radio.

Spain is also easing restrictions to stop the economy from seizing up, although France has extended its restrictions until May 11.

Despite signs that the situation in Germany may be starting to ease, vigilance remains high. A big story in local media in the capital was news from the central Mitte district in Berlin, where a girl marked her 16th birthday with a party attended by 31 guests.

Her mother had even rented an apartment in the swish neighbourhood for that very purpose.

"We didn't swing by to wish her a happy birthday," the Berlin police tweeted.

Irish Independent