Merkel Joins Italy, Spain in Standing by Tough Virus Lockdown
German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined with Spain and Italy in standing by stringent restrictions on public life as Europe’s volatile infection rate complicates plans to begin easing lockdowns.
While Merkel said there are grounds for “cautious hope,” the gains in the fight against the coronavirus are “fragile,” and current limits on movement need more time. In a small condolence for the country’s shut-in population, the measures won’t need to be tightened.
“We can be very pleased that perhaps, as things stand, we can say that isn’t necessary” to take additional steps to minimize contact between people, she told reporters in Berlin on Thursday after a cabinet meeting. She urged her compatriots to abide by the measures over the coming Easter weekend. “We must stay focused.”
Merkel’s cautious words echo the approach in other European countries battling extreme outbreaks. Italy reported a rise in deaths and infections. The U.K.’s death toll, while lower than in the worst-hit parts of Europe, rose by 881 to almost 8,000.
In Spain, parliament was considering Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s request to prolong a state of emergency through April 25. His Italian counterpart, Giuseppe Conte, is preparing to extend a rigid lockdown expiring April 13 for another two weeks, according to officials, who asked not to be identified discussing a confidential issue. The U.K. government is also drawing up plans to extend restrictions.
As the coronavirus maintains its grip on Europe, authorities are caught between the urgent need to reactivate battered economies and calls by health officials to maintain restrictions on public life. Merkel indicated that the battle will be long.
“It will not disappear until we really have a vaccine with which we can immunize the population,” she said. “That means nothing less than we will have to live with the virus.”
The continent has been hit hard, suffering more than 65% of worldwide deaths and Spain, Italy, Germany and France trail only the U.S. in infections.
New virus cases in Germany climbed the most in five days, according to figures Thursday from Johns Hopkins University. Italy said Wednesday that it recorded 3,836 new infections, the highest in three days.
Italy reported 610 deaths compared with 542 a day earlier, increasing its toll to more than 18,000. Infections in Spain rose to more than 150,000 and deaths surpassed 15,000, underscoring the severity of Europe’s most extensive outbreak, even if daily figures declined.
The persistent increase in infections complicates efforts by European leaders to gradually ease the rules that have been put in place to slow the spread. The restrictions are having a devastating impact on economies across the region, and politicians are under pressure to relax them as quickly as possible.
‘Day and Night’
“I would really love to be the first one to say to you that everything is how it was and we can get things going again,” said Merkel. “But that’s not the case. My job right now is to say what is happening now. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think day and night about what might happen in the future.”
The German leader will meet with the heads of the country’s 16 states on Wednesday to consider next steps.
Armin Laschet — a Merkel party ally and the state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous region — said evidence about the spread of the virus needs to be weighed alongside the damage caused by the lockdown. Small retailers and car dealerships may be able to put appropriate health safeguards in place to reopen, he added.
In Italy, only selected companies in the food and pharmaceutical sectors, as well as possibly some shops, will likely be allowed to resume next week, the officials said. Conte may approve a new decree as early as Friday, they said.
Italy needs to define which industrial sectors could restart production, Conte told the BBC. If scientists confirm that the country can start a gradual return to activity, “we might begin to relax some measures by the end of this month,” he said.
An easing of the lockdown may be on a regional basis, one of officials said. The business-rich north of Italy has been hit hardest by the virus. The government is considering recommending that people carry masks and gloves with them for protection in closed areas, including shops.
Portugal, which declared a state of emergency on March 18, tightened containment measures further from Thursday through Monday. The government wants to limit movement during the Easter holiday weekend by closing airports to all passenger travel and banning movement between municipalities.
Luxembourg will become the first European Union country to start systematic tests, regardless of whether people show coronavirus symptoms. Mass testing is aimed at isolating carriers and preventing new surges is a condition for the lifting of restrictions, according to a draft “exit strategy” memo by the European Commission seen by Bloomberg.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn warned that a return to normal life will be a slow process over a period of months. How closely people adhere to restrictions over the Easter break starting Friday will be crucial, he said.
“We are still far away from day-to-day life as we knew it before coronavirus,” Spahn said. “We will need to do without many hard-won things in the coming weeks and months.”
(Recasts and updates with material from other European countries)
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