Germany's economy minister urged the country's 16 federal states on Monday to go slowly in lifting coronavirus restrictions to avoid the outbreak spreading further, which could force them to reintroduce lockdown measures.

Under Germany's decentralised political system, the states have the power to implement and rescind the social distancing measures on which the federal government is relying to slow the virus's spread. Chancellor Angela Merkel is resisting pressure from business groups to further ease restrictions.

Germany has had around 155,000 diagnosed cases of coronavirus, according to official figures published on Monday, but has only had 5,750 deaths, a far lower proportion of fatalities than neighbouring Italy, Spain, France and Britain.

"As a person who believes in fact-based decisions, I recommend to all of us to proceed very carefully in order not to be forced into eventually rescinding easing measures," Peter Altmaier told Deutschlandfunk radio on Monday.

Novel Coronavirus
Novel Coronavirus

Too early to lift the lockdown

Helge Braun, Merkel's chief of staff, wrote in a letter to lawmakers of the ruling coalition seen by Reuters that Germany should be optimistic, adding: "In the interest of the entire population, to avoid overburdening the health system in the long-term, it's too early to lift social distancing."

Germany's low death rate is attributed in part to it having imposed a strict lockdown earlier than other countries relative to the first case being detected.

The federal and state governments introduced the first lockdown measures during the week beginning on March 22, though the precise details of the measures and the dates they were introduced varied from state to state.

The Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases said on Monday that confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany increased by 1,018 to 155,193. On Sunday cases increased by 1,737 and on Saturday they rose by 2,055.

"You have to keep in mind that talking about a massive easing with 2,000 new infections is a risky bet," Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer - defence minister and leader of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) - said on Monday.

"If we were at 1,000 - or even better at 600 or 500 - we would be able to talk about further loosening as long as we stick to social distancing and using protective equipment," she said as she took delivery of 10 million masks that arrived by plane in Leipzig.

As the number of new infections has fallen, many businesses such as smaller stores or car dealerships have been allowed to reopen and some students are returning to schools.

Markus Soeder, the premier of Bavaria, which has imposed some of the strictest social distancing measures, said his state was only taking small steps towards easing lockdown in order not to jeopardise early successes in fighting the disease.

Soeder told BR radio that 80% of the retail sector is open again. "If it works out this week, we can think about a further easing," he added.

Braun said authorities needed to take into account that the extent of the outbreak varied from region to region.

"This could mean that restrictions in certain regions have to be maintained or tightened up again after a period of easing," he said.

He added that the federal government would monitor whether measures taken needed to be adjusted and that authorities would need to weigh which measures effectively stop the virus spreading and what social and economic costs they bring.