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Merkel faces growing opposition to virus restrictions for children

ILE PHOTO: Pupils of the Freiherr-vom-Stein secondary school in the North Rhine-Westphalian city of Bonn wear winter outfits against the cold as school resumes with open windows and protective masks against the spread of COVID-19 following the autumn holidays in Germany, October 26, 2020. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay/File Photo – WOLFGANG RATTAY/REUTERS

Opposition is growing in Germany to Angela Merkel’s attempts to impose tighter coronavirus restrictions on children.

Regional governments are refusing to implement official advice that children should only meet with one playmate outside school hours to slow the spread of the virus. 

And they are drawing up their own proposals for schools after unanimously rejecting Mrs Merkel’s plans to reduce teaching hours and make facemasks compulsory for children of all ages.

The row comes with regional governments and Mrs Merkel divided over how to respond to the second wave in Germany. The country is currently in “lockdown lite”, with restaurants, gyms and places of entertainment closed. Mrs Merkel wants to impose much tougher restrictions, but under Germany’s federal system the 16 states have the final say  and they tore up her proposals on Monday.

It has now emerged that several regional governments agreed in private talks on Wednesday to go a step further and reject official advice that children should only meet with one playmate outside school hours.

The recommendation has come under fire from paediatricians and Germany’s Child Protection Association as harmful to children’s well-being.

Pupils attend a virtual English lesson held by teacher Tobias Honnen, who stays in home quarantine after contact with an infected pupil during sports lessons, at Alexander Coppel Gesamtschule school during the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Solingen, Germany November 17, 2020. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay - WOLFGANG RATTAY/REUTERS
Pupils attend a virtual English lesson held by teacher Tobias Honnen, who stays in home quarantine after contact with an infected pupil during sports lessons, at Alexander Coppel Gesamtschule school during the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Solingen, Germany November 17, 2020. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay – WOLFGANG RATTAY/REUTERS

“I have five grandchildren and I know that this won’t work. It’s a policy that has nothing to do with real life,” Rainer Haseloff, the regional prime minister of Saxony-Anhalt and a member of Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrat party (CDU) said.

“I find it too restrictive to allow children to meet only one friend. This is going too far,” Hubert Aiwanger, the regional deputy prime minister of Bavaria said.

Regions governed by Mrs Merkel’s coalition partners, the centre-Left Social Democrats (SPD), have reportedly agreed en masse not to implement what one party source called a “nonsensical rule”.

Mrs Merkel put forward the proposal as a binding rule under which children would have to nominate one playmate for the duration of lockdown at talks with regional leaders on Monday. When they refused to agree she insisted on including the limit as a government recommendation, but stopped short of making it compulsory.

“Children would be forced to choose between friends. There will be tearful rejections. That is ruthless,” Heinz Hilgers, president of the German Child Protection Association, said. “It can’t be that children aren’t allowed to meet their friends, but buses and trains are full.”

BERLIN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 16: German Chancellor Angela Merkel following a virtual meeting between Merkel and the leaders of Germany's 16 states during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic on November 16, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. The meeting focused on assessing the nationwide four-week November semi-lockdown meant to rein in coronavirus infection rates that have reached record highs. (Photo by Andreas Gora - Pool / Getty Images) - Pool/Getty Images Europe
BERLIN, GERMANY – NOVEMBER 16: German Chancellor Angela Merkel following a virtual meeting between Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic on November 16, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. The meeting focused on assessing the nationwide four-week November semi-lockdown meant to rein in coronavirus infection rates that have reached record highs. (Photo by Andreas Gora – Pool / Getty Images) – Pool/Getty Images Europe

“Since it has been shown that children up to ten years old pass the virus on much less often, even if they are infected, the planned limitation to one playmate for this age group is superfluous and harmful,” Thomas Fischbach, president of the German Association of Paediatricians, said.

The row looks set to come to a head at new talks next week at which regional leaders are set to present Mrs Merkel with their proposals for schools after they rejected her plans to return to more remote teaching.

Calls for schools to remain open were given a boost on Thursday by a new German study which found children were more likely to become infected at private gatherings that at school. The study by the Hamburg school authority found 78 per cent of children infected with the virus between the summer and autumn holidays caught it outside school, with those under 12 only half as likely to become infected as older children.

Many schools only registered a single infection in a year group within 10 days, suggesting it was unlikely the virus was spread at school.  Out of 472 schools in Hamburg, 171 recorded infections, but only 23 of those had multiple infections. A total of 372 children were infected.


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