Angela Merkel has said the coronavirus pandemic is “still at the beginning” and parts of Germany may be rushing their exit from lockdown, as divided EU leaders held a video conference to try to agree a desperately needed Europe-wide recovery fund.
Worried that Germans were relaxing physical distancing efforts amid the reopening of smaller shops this week, the chancellor said some of Germany’s 16 states were moving too fast and the country remained “on the thinnest ice” despite its early achievements.
Germany has the fifth highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world, but has managed to keep its death toll down to just over 5,000, a far lower tally than in many other countries, mainly through early and extensive testing.
“It is precisely because the figures give rise to hope that I feel obliged to say that this interim result is fragile,” Merkel told parliament. “We are still far from out of the woods. We are not in the final phase of the pandemic, but still at the beginning.”
Merkel sets out clear explanation of how coronavirus transmission works – video
Christian Drosten, the director of the Institute for Virology at Berlin’s Charité hospital, said reopening shopping malls and larger stores could trigger a second wave in May and June, and the country risked “gambling away” its early advantage. Schools in Germany are due to reopen from 4 May and Merkel and state leaders are due to meet again on 30 April to review how to proceed after that.
In France, Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday that a detailed plan to exit lockdown would be unveiled early next week. Pupils will return to French schools from 11 May, and the finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, said he hoped retailers other than restaurants, bars and cafes could reopen from the same date.
“We want all retail outlets to be able to open in the same way, out of fairness,” said Le Maire. Bars and restaurants were unlikely to reopen before mid-June “because they are places of mixing”, he added.
Retailers would need to limit the number of people in their shops at one time, Le Maire said, and the hardest-hit regions, such as eastern France and greater Paris, may have to wait longer for shops to reopen. Older people’s movements may also be restricted.
The public health authority chief, Jérome Salomon, said avoiding a second wave of infections remained the priority.
“France’s goal is not to create collective immunity by creating a second and then a third wave,” he told a parliamentary hearing. “That seems too dangerous to us. The goal is to prevent the circulation of the virus, and to create favourable conditions allowing us to gain time before the arrival of effective drugs or vaccines.”
Companies have been told they should encourage employees to continue working from home if they can to limit public transport use, and the government aims to raise its testing programme to about 500,000 tests a week. France has the world’s fourth highest death toll at more than 20,000.
In Italy the northern region of Lombardy, at the centre of Europe’s worst outbreak, began an antibody testing programme as it prepared to start opening up its economy. Blood tests to establish whether someone has had – rather than currently has – the disease will be carried out in 14 of the worst-hit areas before being extended to the whole region next week.
As EU leaders haggled over a rescue package that has reignited a bitter north-south divide between member states, Merkel also said Germany was ready to make “significantly higher” EU budget contributions to help the bloc cope with the fallout from the pandemic.
She added, however, that calls from some EU countries for common debt with common liabilities were not the way to go. “That would be a very difficult process, cost time and wouldn’t even help anyone in the current situation, since we need rapid-fire instruments to tackle the crisis,” she said.
With the bloc standing on the brink of an economic slump unparalleled since the Great Depression of the 1930s, its 27 national leaders were set to debate a variety of €1tn-plus proposals to resuscitate the single market.
Some European commission officials have suggested a €2tn plan combining loans and grants and an agreement on the EU’s next seven-year budget. Spain wants a €1.5tn programme of grants for the worst-hit countries, funded by “perpetual” (ie non-maturing) bonds, while France wants a special fund outside the EU budget.
But any big-spending plans are likely to face resistance from self-styled “frugal” member states such as the Netherlands and Austria, which feel the EU has already taken big steps to stave off economic hardship, such as by relaxing state aid rules and through the European Central Bank’s €750bn bond-buying programme.
Leaders are expected to endorse a €540bn rescue package agreed earlier by finance ministers. Part of that agreement gives countries the right to borrow from the eurozone bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism. But Italy is reluctant to turn to the fund, and Spain has said it has no need to do so.
They should also sign off on guidance from Brussels on lifting the lockdown, with three criteria for judging how and when member states should end restrictions: real decline in the spread of the disease, health system capacity, and availability of testing and tracing systems to monitor future outbreaks.
In other developments:
Global infections passed 2.6 million, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker, with nearly 185,000 deaths.
The latest US jobless figures confirmed that 26.5 million Americans have sought unemployment benefits over the past five weeks.
The number of new coronavirus cases in Russia fell for a second day. The figure has remained below record levels for four days, raising hopes that the outbreak there may have reached a plateau.
Greece is extending lockdown measures by a week, to 4 May.
Spain clarified that children aged 14 or under would be allowed out to walk and play in the streets for an hour a day from Sunday as long as they stay within a kilometre of their homes and are accompanied by an adult.
Vietnam eased physical distancing measures, with experts pointing to a decisive response involving mass quarantines and expansive contact tracing for its success in recording just 268 cases and zero deaths.
China said it would give another $30m to the World Health Organization, days after the US said it would freeze funding.