Chancellor Angela Merkel faces further pressure to lay out a path to ease Germany’s coronavirus lockdown after Finance Minister Olaf Scholz became the latest senior official to call for a quicker reopening of Europe’s largest economy.
Scholz — the vice chancellor and the Social Democratic candidate to succeed Merkel in September’s election — threw his weight behind proposals to step away from a reliance on using the seven-day incidence rate to manage Germany’s pandemic.
As more aggressive variants spread, the measure of new infections has been inching up, moving the country further away from targets Merkel has set for loosening curbs. Her coronavirus cabinet, which includes Scholz, is meeting on Monday to prepare for a critical meeting with state leaders on Wednesday.
Increased testing “must have an impact on what is possible in terms of moves to open up,” Scholz said late Sunday in an interview with the Bild newspaper. “It’s not going to happen all at once, but there must be a step-by-step process that everyone can understand.”
To facilitate a faster reopening, he said he wants companies to test workers and citizens to be able to get free Covid-19 checks. His comments indicate a growing consensus in Germany to move away from the incidence rate to determine pandemic policy.
Merkel opened the door to the move last week, saying testing could create a “buffer” to allow for opening above her target of 35 new cases per 100,000 people over seven days. The figure rose to 65.8 on Monday, according to the RKI public health institute.
Helge Braun, Merkel’s chief of staff, said Sunday the government is planning to test “significantly more than we have done so far” to help prevent another wave of infections as curbs are lifted.
While some children have returned to schools and hairdressers were allowed to reopen on Monday, most of Germany’s lockdown restrictions remain in place. With the pandemic-weary public growing restless ahead of national elections, officials are keen to ease the strain.
Markus Soeder — Bavaria’s premier and a potential chancellor candidate for Merkel’s conservative bloc — on Monday discussed strategies for tackling the pandemic together with his counterpart from the state of Saxony, warning against a hasty opening.
Germany’s infection fell steadily after peaking just before Christmas, but the downward trend has been halted for around two weeks, prompting fears that more virulent strains of the disease could trigger another surge in cases.
With the country’s inoculation campaign slowly ramping up, the country’s STIKO vaccination committee is poised to reconsider its decision not to recommend the AstraZeneca Plc vaccine for people aged 65 and older.
“There will be a new updated recommendation very soon,” STIKO head Thomas Mertens said at the weekend. Last month, Germany decided to keep it’s recommendation for the vaccine to be administered only to people aged 18-64, saying there were insufficient data on its effectiveness for older recipients.
The situation across the European Union is looking increasingly alarming, after a stuttering start to the bloc’s vaccination campaign. Italy is tightening restrictions in Milan, Turin and other areas, the Czech Republic will impose its toughest lockdown yet, and Germany introduced a test requirement at its border with the French Moselle region to tackle the spread of mutations.
Austria’s government is meeting with scientists, opposition parties and provincial governors in Vienna on Monday to discuss how to proceed. Since Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s administration eased a strict lockdown three weeks ago, the incidence rate jumped to 162 from around 100 in early February, making the widepspread reopening of restaurants, cafes and hotels before Easter unlikely.
EU health ministers will hold a video call later on Monday and the European Commission will urge them to massively scale up testing and genome sequencing for virus variants.
While arguing for a cautions lifting of restrictions, Scholz warned that Germany shouldn’t move too fast and risk having to reimpose lockdown measures.
“What we cannot allow is an opening up and then shortly after have to close down again because we have miscalculated and the infection rates are rising dramatically again,” Scholz said. “But if we can somehow stabilize things and improve the situation with the help of tests and progress on vaccination, then we have more options.”