A power struggle between Chancellor Angela Merkel and two German states over coronavirus rules erupted yesterday as Berlin sought to extend social distancing restrictions by another month against a regional revolt.
A draft policy document from Merkel’s office seen by AFP showed that the German government aims to impose existing safety rules until at least July 5 to keep the coronavirus outbreak under control.
The working paper would prolong by a month existing contact restrictions “to maintain a distance of 1.5metres (five feet)” between people, prevent large gatherings and “require masks in certain public areas” such as shops and buses.
The policy directive, until now hammered out in co-ordination between the federal government and the states, came as two eastern regions announced a drastic loosening of measures from June 6 in defiance of Berlin’s guidelines.
Thuringia and Saxony in the ex-communist east of the country, both states with low infection rates, said that they would “open up everything” with few exceptions, while monitoring for new outbreaks.
Under Germany’s federalist system, the 16 regional states have far more leeway to set policy than in more centrally governed countries such as Britain and France.
Merkel has been widely praised for keeping the coronavirus death rate in particular far lower than in many countries worldwide, even as she faced impatience from state premiers to accelerate the opening up of Europe’s top economy.
In light of the latest dispute, Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said that the government rules must remain “binding” and defended her approach, calling it a careful balancing of “courageous and cautious” policies.
“This is what got us to the point where we can even pursue opening up and loosening several of the rules in the first place,” he said.
The policy draft seen by AFP indicated that even as current measures would remain in place, groups of 10 people from two households would be allowed to gather indoors across Germany from June 6.
Pressure has grown especially from regions less impacted by the virus to abandon national guidelines and give cities and towns the power to set the rules, while relying on “personal responsibility” for social distancing.
“I didn’t say that people should start hugging each other or take off their masks to kiss each other,” Thuringia premier Bodo Ramelow told public broadcaster MDR.
However, he said that it made “no sense” to maintain crisis measures when half of the districts in his state hadn’t reported any new infections in the last three weeks.
Local health and safety offices should be given the power to monitor for outbreaks and react accordingly with the support of state authorities, he added.
Following Thuringia’s lead, officials in Saxony said they were also ready for a “paradigm change” in the battle against the virus.
“Instead of imposing general rules and then allowing a lot of exceptions, essentially everything will be opened up and only a few exceptions will be made for what is not possible,” regional health minister Petra Koepping said.
The announcements sparked anger and alarm in Merkel’s ruling coalition.
“Under no circumstances should the impression be given that the pandemic is over,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Twitter, adding that social distancing, hygiene and mask-wearing make it harder for the virus to spread.
“You must not create the impression that the pandemic is over,” he told the Bild tabloid.
Lars Klingbeil, general secretary of the Social Democrats, junior partners in the coalition, accused Ramelow in particular of pandering to extremist critics of the measures, who have staged loud protests in recent weeks.
“I expect politicians to lead and provide orientation and not be led by a few thousand people with conspiracy theories standing up in public squares,” he told Bild.
Germany has seen protests calling for a more rapid lifting of coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
State-owned railway operator Deutsche Bahn said yesterday that it would start increasing long-distance travel again.
It would warn passengers by app when their train was more than half full and let them rebook to a less full train.
Authorities know they must tread a fine line between reopening society and keeping Germans safe.
In Frankfurt, a single church service on May 10 caused at least 107 new cases, they said.
Meanwhile, Germany’s medical regulatory body said yesterday that it had approved a drug named ABX464 for testing patients with Covid-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
A spokesman for the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (BfArM) said the clinical trial was being conducted by Abivax SA, a French biotechnology company headquartered in Paris, France.
He added that a total of 22 clinical trials for Covid-19 treatment had been approved by the body so far.
Abivax SA says it is conducting a placebo-controlled trial on 1,034 elderly or high-risk Covid-19 patients with the goal of determining whether the drug can curb the spread of the virus inside the body.
The trial will also determine whether the drug is able to inhibit the immune system’s overreaction to the virus, which is usually what causes respiratory distress and failure.
Christoph Boesecke of the university hospital in Bonn, who is leading the clinical trial, said the patients are being asked to take a single pill per day for a period of 28 days.
ABX464 is also being trialled for HIV patients.
It has already undergone testing for ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease, but has yet to be approved for use.
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