Angela Merkel warns against lifting lockdown too quickly

Angela Merkel has warned that Germany risks “gambling away” its success in containing the spread of coronavirus if it moves too quickly to lift its lockdown measures.

Amid fears that people believe the worst of the crisis is over and that they can ease social distancing rules, Ms Merkel said on Thursday that the pandemic was only just beginning and that Germans needed to show endurance and discipline.

The federal government and leaders of the country’s 16 regions agreed last week that shops with retail space of up to 800 sq m could reopen from Monday, and that some children could start going back to school from May 4, with priority given to final-year students. 

The chancellor said she fully supported these measures, but said she was “worried about their implementation”. “It seems at times very quick, or even too quick,” she said in an emotional speech to the Bundestag.

“Let’s not gamble away what we have achieved and risk a setback,” she said. “It would be a terrible shame if we end up being punished for hoping too rashly.” 

Germany has the fifth largest number of Covid-19 infections globally, behind the US, Spain, Italy and France, but has a much lower ratio of deaths to confirmed cases — largely because of extensive testing and contact-tracing in the earliest phase of the outbreak. According to statistics from the Robert Koch Institute, it has 148,046 cases of Covid-19 — 2,352 more than on Wednesday — and a total of 5,094 deaths.

But Ms Merkel said that Germany was still on the “thinnest of ice”. The country was, she said, only at the beginning of the pandemic, yet encouraging statistics on the spread of the virus risked “lulling us into a false sense of security”. 

“I’m convinced . . . we need to show maximum endurance and discipline,” she said. “Only then will we be able to fire up our economic, social and public life more quickly, and sustainably.”

Otherwise, the country risked “switching from one shutdown to the next”, having to isolate groups of people from each other “for months at a time” and seeing the kind of “terrible scenes in our hospitals” that some of its neighbours have experienced. 

Ms Merkel was criticised this week for suggesting that Germany was sliding into an “orgy of discussion” about loosening the shutdown, when the priority should be to slow the spread of the virus by maintaining strict social distancing and restrictions on public life.

Her intervention came with some regional leaders, especially Armin Laschet, the prime minister of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, pushing for a much speedier return to normal life. Mr Laschet has long been advocating the reopening of playgrounds, schools and children’s day-care centres.

On the EU’s response to the corona crisis, Ms Merkel ruled out common debt with common liabilities, saying it would involve changing EU treaties as well as long debates in national parliaments. “That would be a difficult and time-consuming process,” she said. “And it wouldn’t be one that would directly help anyone in the current situation.”

She said EU leaders, who are speaking on a video conference on Thursday afternoon about measures to mitigate the corona crisis, would discuss a “stimulus package” to ensure an economic recovery once the pandemic ebbed, and said Germany should prepare itself to pay more into the EU budget.

“We should be prepared, in the spirit of solidarity, over a limited period, to pay quite different, that is much higher, contributions to the EU budget,” she said, “because we want the economies of all member states in the EU to be able to recover.”

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