Health minister, Jens Spahn, said on Friday that the virus was under control in Europe’s largest economy, thanks to confinement measures imposed after an early surge in cases. “The infection numbers have sunk significantly, especially the relative day-by-day increase,” he said.
Germany has declared its coronavirus outbreak under control as it prepares to take its first tentative steps out of lockdown next week, while several European countries unveiled contact-tracing mobile apps aimed at facilitating a gradual return to a more normal life.
Smaller shops in Germany are due to reopen from Monday with some pupils set to return to school on 4 May, although other restrictions will remain in place including bans on gatherings of more than two people in public and on large public events.
The Robert Koch Institute for disease control released data showing that Germany’s person-to-person infection rate had dropped to 0.7, meaning that each person carrying the virus was now infecting less than one other person on average.
The infection rate is a key indicator for politicians as they grapple with the question of when and how far to reopen society, juggling the urgent necessity of unfreezing stalled economies with the need to prevent a second coronavirus wave that would force them to reinstate draconian lockdowns.
According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Covid-19 has so far infected nearly 900,000 people and killed almost 90,000 across the continent, well over half the worldwide total of just over 146,000.
Spahn said Germany, which has recorded 138,000 cases and nearly 4,100 deaths, would be producing up to 50m face masks a week by August, which the public would be “strongly recommended” to wear, adding that a contact-tracing app would be available for download within three to four weeks.
Developers in several European countries are working on similar apps, which work by using Bluetooth-enabled smartphones to inform people quickly when they have been in contact with someone who is infected with the virus, as part of a pan-European privacy preserving proximity tracing (Pepp-PT) initiative.
Norway, which like Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic will start relaxing some physical distancing measures from Monday, on Friday unveiled its Smittestop or “stop infection” app, which will notify users if they have been less than 2 metres from an infected person for more than 15 minutes.
“To get back to a more normal life and keep the virus under control, we all have to make an effort and use this application,” the prime minister, Erna Solberg, said. “If we fail to keep control, we will have to tighten up once again.”
The app – which meets European data protection requirements, will be free to use and is not mandatory – does not identify infected people. Geo-localisation technology will also register its anonymous users’ movements, enabling authorities to calculate the effect of easing restrictions.
Italy, which has Europe’s highest death toll from the virus with more than 22,000 fatalities, also plans to use a smartphone app to track people who test positive. The government last week extended the country’s lockdown until 3 May.
However, France’s state-supported tracing app project, StopCovid, may not be ready by 11 May, when the government aims to start lifting the country’s nationwide lockdown with a return to school for some of the nation’s children, ministers said.
Denmark, the first European country to begin reopening schools for younger children, is set to allow hairdressers and tattoo parlours to resume work from Monday. Driving schools will also start giving lessons again and courts will hear more cases.
“No one wants to keep Denmark closed for a day more than strictly necessary,” the prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, said in a Facebook post. “But we must not move faster than would allow us to still keep the epidemic under control.”
Austria, Italy and Spain this week allowed certain businesses to reopen and some non-essential workers to go back to their jobs, while Finland has lifted a travel blockade on the Helsinki region.
There was no question of a return to normality for many of the world’s roughly 300 million Orthodox Christians, however, who celebrate Easter on Sunday. In Greece, roadblocks were set up and fines doubled for anybody caught driving without justification during the long weekend when families usually return to their ancestral villages.
In the US, Donald Trump announced a phased, state-by-state re-opening of the economy, saying the time had come for the “next front in our war”. More than 22 million Americans have lost their jobs since mid-March.
In China, the city government in Wuhan, where the pandemic originated, added 1,290 deaths to its toll, bringing the total to 3,869 after many dead were “mistakenly reported” or missed, adding to growing global doubts over China’s transparency.
Counting looks set to become an increasingly significant issue as the pandemic progresses, with authorities around the world admitting the numbers of infections and deaths have been under-reported almost everywhere.
Spain on Friday ordered the country’s 17 autonomous regions to adopt uniform criteria on counting the dead after weeks of leaving out patients who had Covid-19 symptoms but were not tested before they died. Italian officials have acknowledged that the country’s official toll understates the true number, mainly because it also does not include people who died in nursing homes but were not tested.
As the disease advances in Africa, meanwhile, modelling by Imperial College London suggested the continent could suffer 300,000 deaths from the coronavirus even under the best-case scenario, with a worst-case toll of 3.3 million people dead and 1.2bn infections if no interventions were made.