BERLIN, Germany (Reuters) - Germany’s coronavirus infection rate needs to fall further - to a few hundred cases a day - before lockdown measures can be eased further, its main public health institution said on Friday.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is worried that Germans are relaxing their social distancing efforts and is resisting pressure from some states to press ahead with a further easing of restrictions after a partial lockdown lift this week.
Germany’s confirmed coronavirus cases increased by 2,337 to 150,383, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed on Friday - a slight deceleration after three straight days of new infections accelerating. The reported death toll rose by 227 to 5,321.
“We should not lower our guard now,” the institute’s vice president, Lars Schaade, said.
Encouraged by lower infection figures, Germany last week allowed smaller stores to re-open from Monday, along with car and bicycle dealers and bookstores, provided they adhere to strict distancing and hygiene rules.
Germany has the fifth-highest COVID-19 caseload behind the United States, Spain, Italy and France, but has kept fatalities down after early and extensive testing.
Virologist Stephan Ludwig from the University of Muenster said Germans must be careful not to grow complacent as the country edges out of lockdown and calls grow for restrictions on public life to be eased further.
“This is a bit like playing with fire now,” he told Reuters. “Just because one can go into shops again does not mean that one need no longer adhere to all other restrictions and hygiene rules.”
Retailers with floorspace of up to 800 square metres are now allowed to open.
A gradual easing of restrictions provides for social distancing rules to remain in place until May 3. Schools will start opening from May 4, with priority for final-year students. Hairdressers can also reopen then.
Merkel urged the country on Thursday to show endurance and discipline to get through a pandemic that is “still at the beginning”.
RKI on Friday also widened its recommendation for who should be tested for the virus to include anyone with symptoms of respiratory infections regardless of previous contact with a known COVID-19 case.
“Now that the government is easing restrictions gradually ... it is particularly important to be able to identify COVID-19 in people who only have mild symptoms,” RKI’s Schaade said.
He added there was now enough testing capacity and that the common cold was no longer distorting the picture as much as during the winter months.
The country is testing about 260,000 swab samples per week but labs have stocked up to be able to carry out 640,000 weekly tests if needed, according to the association of Germany’s certified labs.
Additional reporting by Elke Ahlswede in Muenster, Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt and Joseph Nasr in Berlin, writing by Paul Carrel, Editing by Angus MacSwan