German business decries gradual easing of virus curbs as ‘disaster’

They say government's plan is insufficient, call for speeding up of vaccination, testing efforts

BERLIN: German business groups expressed dismay yesterday after Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders agreed a gradual easing of coronavirus curbs but added an "emergency brake" to reimpose restrictions if case numbers get out of control.

"The results of the coronavirus summit are a disaster for the retail sector," said Mr Stefan Genth, chief executive of the HDE retail association.

Under a five-stage plan, up to five people from two households will be allowed to meet from Monday, with children under 14 exempt.

Some shops, including bookstores and garden centres, can reopen.

Other retailers can reopen only in regions where case numbers are below 50 cases per 100,000 people over seven days.

If the incidence rises above 50, "click and meet" restrictions kick in, whereby customers book a slot to go to the store.

Mr Siegfried Russwurm, president of the powerful BDI industry association, criticised the plan as insufficient and called on the government to speed up efforts to expand vaccination and rapid testing.

Yesterday, Germany's seven-day case average rose to 64.7 from 64 on Wednesday. New infections increased by 11,912 to 2,471,942 and the death toll rose by 359 to 71,240.

"The stable incidence of 50 prescribed for opening shops is not in sight," the HDE said, adding that retailers were likely to lose another 10 billion euros (S$16 billion) in sales by the end of this month compared with 2019.

Dr Merkel's chief of staff, Mr Helge Braun, defended the decision to ease curbs gradually, telling the ARD public broadcaster that the emergency brake for regions with incidence rates above 100 was needed to avoid a third wave of infections.

"That is very important... because the opening steps come at a time when the numbers are slightly going up again and the British mutant is becoming the most common virus type in our country. So we have to remain cautious", Mr Braun said.

Health Minister Jens Spahn told lawmakers that rapid tests would be available for every citizen at least once a week, which should enable a gradual opening of retailing.

The HDE was sceptical about the possibility of shopping by appointment, noting that personnel and operating costs would probably be higher than the turnover.

Meanwhile, Germany's vaccine authority said it will recommend AstraZeneca's vaccine for over-65s, the Frankfurter Allgemeine reported, news that promises an easing of the supply constraints that have slowed the country's vaccine roll-out.

Even as Germany prepares to open up, it has told the European Union it would uphold its latest border restrictions imposed to curb the spread of new variants, snubbing calls from the bloc's executive European Commission, Austria and the Czech Republic.

The executive last week asked Germany and five other countries to ease unilateral restrictions on movement of goods and people, saying they have "gone too far" and were putting a strain on the bloc's cherished single market. - REUTERS