Germany risks squandering the gains it has made in slowing down the spread of the novel coronavirus if the country opens up too quickly, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned, joining leaders across Europe who have cautioned that any easing of lockdown restrictions would likely be gradual.
The country is “still at the beginning” of the coronavirus crisis and will have to live with the virus for a long time, Merkel told Germany’s parliament. “Nobody likes to hear this but it is the truth. We are not living through the final phase of this crisis,” she added.
German federal and state governments recently agreed to loosen some of the social distancing restrictions implemented to combat Covid-19, including allowing smaller shops to reopen. But Merkel warned against moving too fast. “This interim result is fragile. We are on thin ice, one could even say on thinnest ice,” Merkel cautioned.
The country’s center for disease control, the Robert Koch Institute, said the number of new infections remains moderate with 2,352 recorded in 24 hours. Germany’s coronavirus death toll stood at at 5,094 on Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins University, which records that it has one of the lowest mortality rates of the countries most affected by Covid-19.
Merkel said although she fully supports the reopening decisions made by the federal government and the states by conviction, “their implementation worries me… they appear to be very bold, maybe too bold.”
After the loosening of some restrictions, many people flocked into shopping areas and pedestrian zones this week, leading top German virologists to warn against complacency. Merkel has now announced that by Monday all 16 German states will make it mandatory to wear a face mask on public transport and at shops. “Let us not squander what we have achieved and risk a setback,” she urged.
Normal still a long way off
Other countries are also waking up to the realization that coronavirus is not going away anytime soon – and some levels of social distancing measures may need to remain in place for a long time.
England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said Wednesday that the probability of having a vaccine or treatment “anytime in the next calendar year” is “incredibly small.”
“I think we should be realistic about that, we’re going to have to rely on other social measures,” Whitty added. A Covid-19 vaccine trial on humans began in the UK on Thursday.
On Thursday, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also indicated there will be no changes to coronavirus restrictions in the short term, warning that a full “return to normal” might not happen until next year. “A return to normal as we knew it is not on the cards in the near future,” she said at a press briefing in Edinburgh.
However, she said she wanted to “start the conversation” about potential ways out of a lockdown for Scotland, publishing a framework to explain how it will decide whether to ease various measures. Restrictions on outdoor activities may be eased before indoor activities, schools may reopen on a phased basis, but gatherings in pubs or public events are likely to remain “banned or restricted for some time to come,” the document warns.
In Portugal, Prime Minister António Costa warned in a press conference Wednesday that normality wouldn’t return until a vaccine is available to the general public. May and June should be “months of transition towards a gradual de-escalation, with the conscience that de-escalation does not mean, for a long time, returning to normality,” he said.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez told parliament Wednesday that the return to normality “will be slow and gradual, because it has to be secure.” Earlier this month he warned that only a vaccine would provide a path back to normality.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron has said that strict social distancing measures will remain in place and the borders closed until May 11, and that there would be no swift return to normality. “We will eventually prevail but we will have several months to live with the virus,” he said in an address to the nation on April 13. Macron has warned that the European Union faces a “moment of truth” as it tackles the devastating economic fallout from the crisis.
In Italy, where more than 25,000 people with coronavirus have died, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, told parliament on Tuesday: “We have to maintain and respect, on all levels, the measures of social distancing and promote the general use of individual protective equipment, until there are vaccines and treatments available.”
CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen and Nadine Schmidt reported from Berlin. Sarah Dean wrote from London