Germany joins Italy in starting debate over an end to lockdowns

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Germany and Italy are beginning to debate how to gradually relax some restrictions on public life as Europe slowly inches closer to bringing strict rules designed to contain the spread of the coronavirus to an end.

The premier of Germany’s largest state proposed a “clear road map” for relaxing the nation’s lockdown ahead of a call with regional leaders and Chancellor Angela Merkel on April 15, when they will revisit current restrictions. At the same time, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government is hammering out an approach that foresees the full return to normal life taking months, according to people directly involved in the talks.

“The criterion for possible openings should be whether rules for proper distancing can be maintained — and whether proper protective measures are available,” Armin Laschet, who governs the hard-hit western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, told Handelsblatt newspaper in an interview.

The debate stokes tension between authorities eager to plot a course out of unprecedented restrictions imposed on hundreds of millions of Europeans and public health officials, who say talk of an exit is too early as the hardest-hit nations only begin to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Reflecting proposals to ease lockdown rules in countries like Austria and Denmark, Laschet, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, said the staged opening of small retail spaces, auto manufacturers’ sales branches and even restaurants should be possible if people keep a safe distance. The German government last week extended the nationwide lockdown until April 19 but said it would reassess these measures after Easter.

In Italy, schools in the epicenter of the continent-wide outbreak will remain closed until September, with every step to ease restrictions dependent on the spread of the disease remaining under control, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are confidential.

Some companies and shops may resume operations as soon as April 13, and Italians could be allowed to go outside and gradually return to offices as of May 4, the people said.

Italy’s new infections rose to their highest in three days on Wednesday, underscoring the uncertainty hanging over the government’s plans. New cases totaled 3,836, compared with 3,039 the previous day, civil protection officials said at their daily news conference in Rome.

The continent has been hit hard, suffering more than 65% of worldwide deaths and Spain, Italy, France and Germany trailing only the U.S. in infections.

Merkel, who has urged caution to prevent a rekindling of the epidemic, has been careful to say that while her government was looking at options for reopening, for now Germans should remain indoors. Restrictive measures in the country ban gatherings of more than two people, with exceptions for families.

Still, the leader of Bavaria, the German state hit hardest by the pandemic, gave a sobering assessment by calling into doubt the Oktoberfest in Munich, a two-week beer festival that begins in September. Large-scale travel and open borders by then will be “very unlikely,” he told Bild newspaper.

The European Commission also warned for overly hasty exits from mass isolation, saying that such measures can be reversed only when the disease’s spread has “significantly decreased for a sustained period of time.”

“Any level of (gradual) relaxation of the confinement will unavoidably lead to a corresponding increase in new cases,” the Commission said, according to a draft of an internal memo seen by Bloomberg. Authorities must also take into account hospital and intensive care capacity and the availability of health-care workers.

In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez will ask parliament on Thursday for approval to extend a state of emergency through April 25. The country will return to normal life gradually after that, although experts are still working on how that process will work, Maria Jesus Montero, budget minister and government spokeswoman, told broadcaster Antena 3.

New cases and deaths rose by the most in four days in Europe’s most-extensive outbreak of the disease, a grim reminder of the difficulties in controlling the spread.

In Italy, a video conference hosted by Conte on Tuesday included an emergency team of medical and scientific advisers. Government ministers at their offices and homes quizzed the experts, who wore masks and gloves in a basement room of the civil protection agency.

For the prime minister, a former academic, it was an opportunity to ensure his government based its strategy on science as the spread slows and the lockdown cripples the economy. Conte’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Experts warned about jumping to conclusions after a few days of improving figures in some countries. While the general trend is “positive,” the pandemic is still only in its early stages, according to the head of the public health authority in Germany, where new infections rose the most in three days.

“We are seeing that we can dampen the growth of the illness, but it’s really only a snapshot,” Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute, said on Deutschlandfunk radio.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron is due to address the nation for a third time since the start of the virus crisis on Thursday evening. He’s expected to announce the extension of the lockdown after calls multiplied over recent days for the confinement to last a few more weeks. Stricter conditions have been implemented locally, with Parisians now forbidden from undertaking physical exercise outside during the bulk of the day.


(With assistance by Patrick Donahue, Mariajose Vera, Iain Rogers, Stephen Treloar, Rodrigo Orihuela, Geraldine Amiel, Sonia Sirletti and Ian Wishart.)


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