Germany has suffered the deadliest day of its coronavirus crisis so far as the rate of new infections also accelerated.
The country announced 315 new deaths from the virus Thursday, bringing its total from 3,254 to 3,569. The figure is higher than the 285 reported Wednesday, which was the previous highest total.
The number of new cases also rose by 2,866 taking the total number of infections from 127,584 to 130,450.
That marks a 9.7 per cent rise in the number of cases, the third day in a row that the rate of new infections has risen after almost a week in decline.
A falling infection rate is a key indicator that a country has passed the peak of its outbreak and succeeded in flattening the curve. A rising rate means the peak has yet to come.
Nevertheless, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Wednesday that Germany will begin to ease its coronavirus lockdown starting next week.
Smaller shops are set to reopen first, while schools will follow in early May.
But Ms Merkel has warned that masks should be worn on public transport and in shops.
‘It is recommended that masks be used in public transport and while shopping,’ she told journalists after talks with regional leaders from Germany’s 16 states.
Following the much-anticipated talks today, Ms Merkel set out a plan for the first steps of a cautious restart of public life – following neighbouring Austria and Denmark and other countries in launching a slow loosening of restrictions.
New infections in Germany have slowed in recent weeks, with the country having now recorded more 133,000 cases of coronavirus.
There have been 3,254 coronavirus-related deaths in Germany, though 285 more deaths were recorded yesterday, the biggest daily spike the country has seen so far.
But despite beginning to lift restrictions, Ms Merkel cautioned that the country has achieved only ‘a fragile intermediate success’ so far and does not have ‘much room for manoeuvre.’
She said a ban on gatherings of more than two people in public and an obligation to keep at a 1.5-metre distance from others, which has been in place since March 23, will remain in place.
The measures were set to expire on Sunday.
Nonessential shops, which have also have been closed for nearly four weeks, will be allowed to start reopening, with hygiene precautions, if they are up to 800 square metres in area.
Car showrooms, bike shops and bookshops, irrespective of their size, will be allowed to open.
Ms Merkel said the decisions apply to the period from Monday though May 3, and officials will review the situation again on April 30.
Schools, which have been closed since mid-March, will begin to reopen step by step from May 4, with the oldest students returning first.
Hairdressing salons also should prepare to reopen starting May 4, officials said.
State governors and Germany’s interior minister will hold talks this week with religious communities on what to do about religious gatherings, which have not been allowed in recent weeks, Ms Merkel said.
It remains unclear when bars, cafes and restaurants – which also are closed, apart from for takeouts – will be allowed to reopen.
‘We are moving forward in small steps and must see what effect they have,’ Ms Merkel said.
As reported earlier by the MailOnline, a panel of academics has advised Ms Merkel to re-open primary schools ‘as soon as possible’ as the number of infections loses pace.
Germany had a setback today when 285 more deaths were added to the tally, the biggest daily spike so far.
Experts warn that the time lag between infection and death means a country’s death figures may continue to worsen even once the number of cases slows down.
In addition, many countries have had inflated figures at the start of the week because of a weekend backlog, a problem which may have been exacerbated by the long Easter weekend.
The number of new infections today was 2,486, higher than yesterday’s 2,082 but still the second-lowest figure since March 22.
The 2.0 per cent increase in cases brings the overall tally from 125,098 to 127,584.
Germany also has a keen eye on the rate of contagion, known as R, which shows how quickly the virus is spreading.
The rate is currently around 1.2, meaning that each person with the virus infects another 1.2 people on average.
‘It is really in our interest that this R rate goes below 1, or is at 1. That is an important factor,’ said Lothar Wieler, head of the Robert Koch diseases institute.
‘We can’t speak of containment yet – we still have high numbers each day. We are seeing a slowdown,’ he said.
Today’s changes come after Ms Merkel met the leaders of Germany’s 16 states to discuss a possible way out of the lockdown.
In recommendations sent to Ms Merkel, an influential group of academics called for schools to re-open ‘as soon as possible’.
The Academy of Sciences Leopoldina suggests that children could return to school in classes of no more than 15 at a time in order to enforce social distancing.
Nicknamed the ‘Merkel whisperers’, the panel of experts have called for a ‘gradual resumption of economic and social activity’ as the epidemic eases.
One proposal includes re-opening schools gradually from May 4 with priority given to primary and secondary pupils in final years. Schools must prepare a hygiene plan before they reopen their doors.
Kindergartens and primary schools should re-open first because parents of younger children will benefit more from the resumption of daily childcare, the experts say.
There would also have to be staggered break times so that the school playground does not become a breeding ground for the virus, they warn.
Children should initially study a bare-bones curriculum of German, maths and foreign languages as schools make a gradual return to normality, they suggest.
However, universities and other higher education institutions should stick to online teaching for the summer term, the experts advise.
RKI chief Wieler said there were ‘no major differences’ between his view of the situation and the Academy’s, apart from ‘small details’ such as which age groups should return to school first.
‘There is still no blueprint’ for how to reopen a society and economy after the virus lockdown, he added, and ‘not always a right and wrong’ answer.
Merkel has said that the Academy’s position paper will be important for her determination on the path forward.
Germany has also closed shops, restaurants, playgrounds and sports facilities, and many companies have shut to aid the fight against the coronavirus.
Berlin mayor Michael Mueller told broadcaster RBB yesterday that the lockdowns could be relaxed ‘at the earliest from April 27, or possibly from May 1’.
Much of the early decision-making was left to Germany’s 16 states, of which Berlin is one.
Federal economy minister Peter Altmaier declined to name a date for the relaxation of restrictions.
‘The next few days will bring clarity,’ he said on breakfast television, adding that the government was keenly aware of the risks of lifting restrictions too early only to have to impose a full lockdown later.
‘If the impression arises that there is to-ing and fro-ing, it would damage trust in politics and harm the peoples’ willingness to be disciplined and to cooperate,’ Altmaier said. ‘We have to consider every step.’
Neighbouring Austria has already taken steps out of the lockdown, opening small shops yesterday with a view to opening larger ones on May 1.
However, schools in Austria are set to remain closed until mid-May along with hotels and restaurants.