Germany postpones decision on reopening schools

Angela Merkel said children’s playgrounds in Germany can reopen and religious services resume but, with the coronavirus pandemic still far from over, it was too early to reopen the country’s schools and kindergartens.

Speaking after a meeting with the heads of Germany’s 16 regions on Thursday, Ms Merkel said the government needed more time to establish what effect the loosening of the most restrictive measures had had on the progress of the pandemic before it embarked on a further easing of the shutdown. That was why they had decided to postpone a decision on when to fully restart schools, day-care centres and sports clubs until May 6, she said.

“Every relaxation of the restrictions leads to more people moving around in public, meeting each other, and city centres and public transport filling up,” Ms Merkel told reporters. “And for that reason we must continually keep an eye on how [this] affects possible new infections.”

The prudent approach on schools comes as European countries debate the risks of relaxing restrictions to restart their economies after weeks of lockdowns designed to reduce the spread of Covid 19.

While France is planning to reopen crèches and primary schools when the country starts easing its restrictions on May 11, Italy is not reopening them before September as scientists disagree on the role of children in the transmission of the disease in the community.

Danish authorities on Thursday said the reproduction rate for coronavirus had risen significantly since the Scandinavian country started reopening schools and kindergartens two weeks ago.

The reproduction rate — which signifies how many people on average are infected by somebody with the virus — rose from 0.6 on April 14 to 0.9 last week, Denmark’s Serum Institute said. Anything below 1 means the spread of infection is decreasing but its increase potentially limits Denmark’s room for manoeuvre.

“The reproduction rate is only one parameter among many. We look at how the capacity is in the health system,” said Kare Molbak, head of the Serum Institute, adding however that there was still spare capacity in intensive care. Denmark has also reopened hairdressers, beauty salons, and tattoo parlours.

Ms Merkel has insisted that Germany must take a cautious, step-by-step approach to lifting the restrictions on public life that have laid low its economy, pushed up unemployment and left tens of thousands of businesses facing financial ruin. German economy minister Peter Altmaier said on Wednesday that the country would this year experience the worst recession in its postwar history.

Nevertheless, Germany has moved faster than most of its big neighbours to ease its shutdown. On April 20, authorities announced that most shops and some school classes could reopen.

Ms Merkel said on Thursday that museums, exhibitions and memorials could open to the public, as could zoos and botanical gardens.

Angela Merkel: ‘Some European countries are still in lockdown until May 11. So talking about what kind of travel we’ll have in Europe in the summer is not an issue that is on the agenda right now’ © Sean Gallup/Getty

No decision has been made on restaurants and bars’ reopening or Bundesliga football matches, however. Big public events such as concerts and fairs will remain banned until at least August 31.

Peter Tschentscher, the mayor of the city state of Hamburg, insisted on Thursday that the regional premiers had agreed on limited measures “that will not substantially increase the risk of infection” with coronavirus.

“The openings can only become permanent, and a return to nationwide restrictions can only be avoided, when we succeed in controlling the infection and keeping the number of new infections consistently low,” the leaders said in a statement.

It said that officials would be charged with preparing draft resolutions for the May 6 meeting that would pave the way for a “further gradual opening of schools, day-care centres and a gradual resumption of sport activities”. They would also be asked to draw up proposals for a gradual reopening of restaurants and hotels, steps that would be discussed at the next meeting between Ms Merkel and the regional leaderships later in May.

The leaders also agreed to leave Germany’s strict social distancing rules in place. For weeks now, Germans have been urged to keep a distance of 1.5m from each other and not to gather in public.

Asked whether she could offer assurances that Germans would be able to travel on holiday abroad this summer, Ms Merkel said the issue was “not on the agenda”.

“Some European countries are still in lockdown until May 11,” she told reporters. “So talking about what kind of travel we’ll have in Europe in the summer is not an issue that is on the agenda right now.”

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