German virus data offers 'hope' but curbs must stay, says Merkel

Berlin (AFP) –


Latest figures which show the spread of the coronavirus is slowing in Germany are a cause for "hope", Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday, but warned that it was too early to relax restrictions on public life.

Germany has shut schools, banned public gatherings of more than two and imposed requirements for people to keep a distance of at least 1.5 metres (five feet).

The measures have helped to slow the spread of the virus, experts said.

"It's true that the latest figures, as high as they are, give us a little bit of hope, as the growth in new infections is slower than it was a few days ago," said Merkel in an official podcast.

"But it is definitely much too early to see a clear trend in that, and it is certainly too early to think in any way about relaxing the strict rules we have given ourselves," she added.

The number of infections was still climbing, and approached 80,000 on Friday.

The curbs aimed at keeping Germans home are officially in place until April 19 and Merkel said it would be be "irresponsible" to commit to a fixed end date.

"If I were to disappoint the hopes awoken by such a promise, then we would be out of the frying pan and into the fire -- medically, economically and socially," she said.

- 'It's working' -

Earlier Friday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for disease control announced that measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus are starting to show effect.

"We are seeing that the spread of the virus is getting slower... it's working," said RKI president Lothar Wieler.

Wieler explained that each person who had caught the virus was now infecting only one person on average, where previously that number had been as high as seven.

"If the number is below one, then it means the epidemic is slowly easing up. That is our aim," he said.

"We know that we have pushed the number down to one with the measures, and we hope to push it down further."

Like Merkel, Wieler nonetheless stressed the necessity of maintaining the restrictions on the public.

"I need to say very clearly: the measures need to be maintained. Keeping your distance and staying at home is imperative, otherwise we will not push the number under one," he said.

Federal states across the country have introduced penalties to crack down on those flouting the rules, with Berlin city authorities imposing fines of up to 500 euros for those who fail to keep a safe distance from others in public.

With debate growing on the efficacy of using masks, the RKI altered its recommendations on Friday to encourage citizens to wear self-made masks in public.

It was "important to understand" that such masks would not protect the wearer, but they could help to protect others, said Wieler.

He added that there was "not yet any scientific proof" that the masks would limit the spread of the virus, but it "seemed plausible".

According to RKI figures on Friday, Germany has recorded 79,696 cases of the novel coronavirus.

A total of 1,017 deaths have been recorded, though RKI president Wieler warned Friday that the actual number could be much higher.

Wieler also warned that the mortality rate would "continue to rise" in Germany.

Latest figures showed that the death rate in Europe's largest economy had jumped to 1.2 percent, still considerably lower than that of neighbouring countries.