Merkel insists on basics as states take bigger role in virus controls

BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel has conceded more responsibility to Germany’s 16 states for tackling the coronavirus epidemic, but insisted that social distancing and mask-wearing were needed to avoid a new wave of infections.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks on at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on May 27, 2020 at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany. Due to the required distance to prevent from the coronavirus infection, the meeting takes place in the International Conference Room and not in the usual cabinet room. Tobias Schwarz/Pool via REUTERS

A row has erupted between central government and several states that want to shift away from strict rules to looser recommendations as the number of new cases falls. The states are in charge of most day-to-day enforcement issues.

Germany has managed to keep its COVID-19 death toll relatively low despite a high number of cases, and a nationwide shutdown in mid-March has already been eased, with shops, factories, schools and restaurants re-opening.

“Now with the recent numbers, which we can be pleased with, responsibility lies more with the states,” Merkel said on Wednesday, adding it made sense for individual regions to decide how to re-open schools and implement hygiene measures in this new phase.

However, she criticised Thuringia state premier Bodo Ramelow, saying his message on easing curbs had been “rather ambiguous”. “I think there is a commitment on keeping a minimum distance (of 1.5 metres),” she said.

Wearing face protection and sticking to an “emergency brake” to reimpose tougher restrictions in the event of a pickup in infections in an area were also a basic minimum, she said.

Ramelow has said he would scrap strict rules on masks and distancing in Thuringia, which has fewer than 3,000 cases, and rely on recommendations.

Merkel, a scientist who has scolded some states for being too “brisk” in lifting restrictions, reiterated her cautious approach, saying the virus had not gone away.

“We are still at start of the pandemic,” she said. “We must be very careful, very vigilant.”

Local outbreaks have in the last couple of weeks hit migrant workers in meat processing factories, worshippers at a church service and a diners at a restaurant.

Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Michelle Martin and John Stonestreet