German state vows to end lockdown in new threat to Merkel's authority

Jorg Luyken
Angela Merkel, speaking at a press conference on Friday. has struggled to co-ordinate German states as they exit lockdown  

The east German state of Thuringia has become the first to announce it will lift the coronavirus lockdown and allow citizens to make their own choices in a move that further erodes Angela Merkel’s control over the pandemic response.

“Our motto will be: recommendations instead of bans, and self-regulation instead of state compulsion,” Thuringia’s state leader Bodo Ramelow said on Sunday.

Mr Ramelow will reveal details of his plan later in the week, but an end to restrictions on movement and compulsory face masks, plus a complete reopening of schools are all seen as likely.

“We made our decision in March based on estimates of 60,000 infections, we are now down to 245 [in Thuringia],” Mr Ramelow told Bild newspaper. “This success shows that restrictions were correct, but it also means we have to now make realistic decisions - meaning lifting the lockdown.”

The changes will come on June 6th - the day after the lockdown extension agreed by Ms Merkel with state leaders earlier in May expires.

State leaders have repeatedly ignored Ms Merkel’s warnings not to move too fast as they compete to get their economies back up and running.

The former communist east of the country has been particularly eager to reopen businesses as it has been spared the worst of the pandemic.

The rate of new infections across Germany has been declining for weeks. Official figures from Sunday show 431 new infections over the previous 24 hours, way down on a high point of close to 7,000 in early April.

Meanwhile the reproduction rate - a figure seen by virologists as an important signal of the virus' current trajectory - has stayed consistently below 1 since April.

Nonetheless Mr Ramelow’s bold plan has been met with scepticism in other parts of the country. 

Thomas Strobl, interior minister in Baden-Württemberg, cautioned that “the virus is still out there. We must not put our current success at risk through irresponsible behaviour.”

Ms Merkel meanwhile has adjusted her tone in recent days as she appears to accept that her cautious line is falling on deaf ears.

Speaking for the first time about the crisis in the past tense, the Chancellor said on Saturday that “luckily we have been able to prevent our health system from being overwhelmed.”

“I am happy to be able to say today that the current situation enables us to allow many things again that were restricted for a few weeks,” she added.