Germany’s coronavirus strategy was routed as Chancellor Angela Merkel turned the tide of a controversial Easter shutdown and apologized to the German people for a policy she admitted to having been a fault.
The U-turn, just two days after an agreement with state leaders, is almost unprecedented in German politics and reflects growing public frustration with the government’s handling of the pandemic.
A day after the plan was initially announced at a coronavirus planning meeting with German state prime ministers, Merkel apologized at a press conference – her first such apology in 16 years in as chancellor.
“The error is mine and mine alone. Because at the end of the day, I bear the responsibility as Chancellor, ”she said. “I deeply regret it and I ask forgiveness from our fellow citizens.”
Germany has been stranded since November, but cases started to rise amid a short-lived release earlier in March. Health experts attributed the spike to the combination of the partial reopening and the increasing dominance of the coronavirus variant B.1.1.7, which is more contagious than other strains.
Once seen as a model for dealing with coronaviruses earlier in the pandemic, Germany struggled with the second wave, which has now grown into a third.
Because it has a federal system, in which many decisions are decentralized, it is up to the 16 German states to reach a consensus to implement a national public health strategy. But a deal has proven increasingly difficult to secure, as views of heads of state have diverged, even as infections have skyrocketed.
As of Wednesday, cases reached 108 per 100,000 population, meaning the national seven-day incidence rate had risen above 100 for three consecutive days, triggering a planned ’emergency brake’ that restores restrictions .
Merkel acknowledged that the “Easter rest” plan was hastily decided and that a day of discussions that followed highlighted the legal and technical difficulties of implementation for businesses and public administrations.
“It had its good reasons, but it was not achievable in the short period of time, if it had ever been able to be implemented in such a way that the cost and the benefits lie in a half-reasonable relationship”, Ms Merkel said.
Armin Laschet, the new leader of Merkel’s Christian Democrats and President of North Rhine-Westphalia, expressed “great respect” for the way the Chancellor had taken responsibility for the botched plan. But he argued that state prime ministers should be blamed more.
“We all have to take it upon ourselves. We supported this path and did not contradict it ”, he declared in the parliament of his state.
There has also been growing impatience in Germany over the increasingly agitated tone of Merkel’s meetings with state prime ministers. Local media reported on Tuesday that state leaders bickered for hours to ease restrictions and question why Germany allowed citizens to take vacations in Mallorca when hotels at home remained closed.
Election year rivalries also fueled the fire. Some critics, including Social Democrats, junior partners in Merkel’s ruling coalition, have argued that instead of tightening restrictions on individuals, the government should focus on increasing testing and acceleration of the vaccination campaign.
The CDU, meanwhile, has taken a heavy blow to its popularity in recent weeks due to frustration over the pandemic response and following revelations two of the party’s MPs have won. commissions on offers to purchase protective masks.
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The Easter plan even drew condemnation from some members of CDU’s sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, over the call for online church services.
“It amazed me that parties with the C in their name, of all things, suggest that churches refrain from holding services, even more so at Easter,” said Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who is from CSU.
The last Prime Ministers’ meeting on Monday afternoon lasted late into the night and early Tuesday morning. At a 2.30am press conference in Berlin after the meeting, Merkel told reporters that stricter measures were needed to tackle variant B.1.1.7. She described it as being almost a “new pandemic”.
Although plans for Easter have been reversed, the extension of the lockdown until April 18 will remain in place.
“The road is hard and rocky,” Merkel said. “But the virus will slowly but surely lose its horror.”