Germany to start easing COVID-19 lockdown next week, draft says, critics call for speedier reopening


A woman walks with her dog at the Volkspark Friedrichshain, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Berlin, Germany March 2, 2021. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel faced growing pressure to set out a clear roadmap to reopening German society from months of pandemic lockdown, with Finance Minister Olaf Scholz joining the chorus of voices saying existing plans did not go far enough.

Draft plans, seen by Reuters, show ministers are planning to ease some restrictions beginning next week, a cautious approach that is likely to disappoint parents of school-age children and many business groups in Europe's largest economy.

Scholz, his Social Democrat party's candidate to succeed the conservative Chancellor in this year's national election, called for more testing and vaccination to help speed the reopening process.

"Much of what we're hearing from the Chancellor's office doesn't go far enough," he told Bild newspaper. He wanted to see "a combination of testing and opening," he said. "And vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate."

Death rates and numbers of patients in intensive care have been declining since January. But the easing will be tentative as new daily cases have begun creeping up again in recent days and the pace of vaccination has been sluggish.

Scholz's remarks, together with implied criticism of Germany's progress on vaccination, put him at odds with Merkel, who told a meeting of her Christian Democrats (CDU) on Tuesday that she was in favour of a slight opening.

Merkel is due to debate easing options with the 16 state government heads on Wednesday.

The draft plans state that, starting from March 8 a maximum of five people from two households, excluding children younger than 14, will be allowed to meet, up from a maximum of two people under current rules.

Flower shops and book stores, garden centres, tattoo and nail parlours as well as massage salons will also be allowed to reopen on March 8, according to the draft. Hairdressers and some schools have reopened in recent days.

However, Merkel told her party she wants to build an emergency handbrake into the plan in case infections start to spike, noting that about half of new cases are currently caused by more infectious virus variants, the sources said.

"This is the opposite of an opening strategy," said Guido Zoellick, president of the Dehoga association representing the hotel and catering industry. He called for a clear plan for when the next steps to relax restrictions will be possible.

MORE TESTING?

Armin Laschet, premier of Germany’s largest state and CDU leader, also said it should be possible to ease the rules based on a strategy of more testing for COVID-19 and faster vaccinations.

Germany already plans to use tests in schools and is also considering making companies offer them to office staff, according to a proposal up for consideration on Wednesday.

The health ministry wants to offer all citizens two free coronavirus tests per week by the end of June, according to a draft proposal seen by Reuters.

The number of confirmed cases rose by 3,943 to 2,451,011 on Tuesday, while the reported COVID-19 death toll rose by 358 to 70,463. The number of cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days fell slightly to 65.7 from 65.8 the previous day.

With the Easter holidays nearing, the draft agreement appeals to Germans to avoid domestic and foreign travel although limited visits to relatives will be allowed.

Restaurants, bars and entertainment venues in Germany have been shut since early November, while non-essential shops, services and schools closed in mid-December.

German retail sales tumbled more than expected in January as the lockdown and the withdrawal of a temporary cut in sales tax hit consumer spending, data showed on Tuesday.

(Writing by Joseph Nasr and Emma Thomasson; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Bill Berkrot)

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