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ANGELA MERKEL

Germany set to prolong lockdown measures as Covid-19 vaccine row intensifies

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders are set Tuesday to extend a shutdown in Europe's top economy where the coronavirus vaccine rollout faces mounting criticism.

Germany set to prolong lockdown measures as Covid-19 vaccine row intensifies
A sign says 'stay healthy' at the Theater am Aegi in Hanover. Photo: DPA

After Germany's daily deaths surpassed the 1,000-mark for the first time on December 30th, pressure escalated to slow the spread of the disease which has claimed more than 34,000 lives.

Merkel and the premiers of Germany's 16 states are due to meet Tuesday, with regional leaders signalling that they would prolong the current partial lockdown beyond the January 10th deadline, probably until the end of the month.

“Given that infection rates are still too high it will be necessary to extend the restrictions,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said Monday.

FACT CHECK: What's the latest on Covid-19 (and the new variant) in Germany

Michael Kretschmer, premier of Saxony, the state with the highest infection rates in the country, said a continued shutdown was “unavoidable”.

The current rules have seen most shops closed along with schools, restaurants, cultural and leisure facilities, and celebrations over Christmas and the New Year holidays were limited to small gatherings.

Officials say the impact of holiday travel and socialising on the virus's spread will not be known until mid-January but that the figures to date are already deeply worrying.

READ ALSO: How long will Germany's tough lockdown measures be in place?

'Immense challenges'

Government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Monday that with some 5,700 corona patients in intensive care around the country, “hospitals in many places are working close to capacity”.

Spahn said that given such figures, a return to “face-to-face” learning for children was “highly implausible” and called for national guidelines on when and how schools could reopen.

In a New Year's Eve televised address, Merkel had already warned Germans of a hard winter with the virus, stressing “the challenges that the pandemic poses remain immense”.

Germany, the EU's most populous country, fared better than most of its neighbours during the first wave of the pandemic and its death toll is still lower than countries such as Italy, France or Spain.

But epidemiologists say complacency about that relative success and an unwillingness to implement the toughest measures such as widespread curfews likely contributed to an exponential spread of the virus in the autumn.

Since October, the meetings between Merkel and regional leaders to set policy on the coronavirus have been marked by open conflict, with the chancellor pushing for a tougher line against resistance from several states.

READ ALSO: Merkel warns Germany faces difficult times in 2021

Although Merkel's popularity remains high and a large majority of Germans say they are broadly satisfied with her handling of the pandemic, analysts say those differences also undermined faith in the shutdown.

'Great hope'

The country began its vaccination drive on December 26th, and more than 264,000 people have received the first of two jabs.

But German media and even the Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in the government, have slammed what they call a slow rollout, accusing the government of relying too much on joint action with the European Union.

At the start of an election year, SPD leaders have demanded answers from Spahn why “the European Commission ordered so few vaccines” and “Germany did not order the doses unclaimed in the EU”.

READ ALSO: How Germany plans to improve Covid-19 vaccine rollout in January

A poll from Civey institute found that 44 percent of Germans were unconvinced by the government inoculation strategy, while around 40 percent said they were “highly confident” it was the right approach.

Seibert, Merkel's spokesman, insisted the European way was in the German interest, adding that the latest inoculation numbers “give us great hope”.

A Health Ministry spokesman said Germany was to receive a combined total of up to 140 million doses of the BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

“But it was clear from the beginning that supplies would be limited at the start,” he told reporters, blaming a lack of production capacity for the bottleneck.

The government is also examining whether to extend the duration between the two vaccine doses necessary, to allow more people to get their first jab, according to a document from the health ministry seen by AFP.

By Deborah Cole

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COVID-19 RULES

Bavaria pushes for stricter Covid regulations in autumn

Health ministers across Germany's 16 states are debating the government's new Covid plan - and politicians in Bavaria say they want more clarity.

Bavaria pushes for stricter Covid regulations in autumn

On Tuesday, federal and state health ministers planned to discuss the Covid protection proposals for autumn and winter presented last week by Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) and Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP).

However, some states and politicians are not satisfied with the plans. 

Under the proposals, masks will remain mandatory in air and long-distance transport, as well as clinics, nationwide. But federal states will be able to choose themselves whether to introduce further measures like mandatory masks on public and regional transport.

States will also have the power to take tougher Covid measures if the situation calls for it, such as mandatory masks indoors, but lockdowns and school closures have been ruled out. 

READ ALSO Masks and no lockdowns: Germany’s new Covid plan from autumn to Easter

The draft law states that there can be exceptions from wearing masks in indoor spaces, such as restaurants, for recently Covid-vaccinated or recovered people. 

But Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek (CSU) told DPA that these planned exemptions were not justified because vaccinated and recovered people can still transmit infections. “There are clear gaps in the current draft law,” said the CSU politician.

Dominik Spitzer, health policy spokesman for the FDP parliamentary group in the Bavarian state parliament, also questioned this exception, saying the rules “simply made no sense”.

“With the current virus variant, that would be impossible to convey, since even vaccinated people can continue to carry the virus,” the FDP politician told Bavarian broadcaster BR24. 

The coalition government’s graduated plan under the new Infection Protection Act, is set to be in force from October 1st until April 7th next year. 

The powers for the states are a first step, “but they do not go far enough for us”, Holetschek added, while calling for some points to be tightened up. “We need strong guidelines for autumn and winter.”

Holetschek said the government needed to tighten up the criteria with which states can adopt and enforce more effective measures to protect against the spread of Covid-19.

READ ALSO: Could Germany see a ‘patchwork’ of Covid rules?

Meanwhile, CDU health politician Erwin Rüddel said Germany was on the “wrong track” and the country should find “a completely different approach” to Covid policy than it has so far.

He accused the coalition government of being in “panic mode” and said he doubted the Bundestag would pass the proposals.

“I believe, there will be significant changes (to the draft)”, he said.

But the chairperson of the doctors’ association Marburger Bund, Susanne Johna, backed the plans.

“The proposal for the new Infection Protection Act gives the states sufficient possibilities to react adequately to the infection situation,” Johna told the Rheinische Post on Tuesday.

“The states can take regionally adapted measures to protect people if the need arises. I can’t understand why this concept is being called into question right away.”

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