Merkel seeks to extend Covid-19 measures as Germans grumble

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will seek to extend strict curbs to fight the pandemic until at least the end of February at crunch talks this week, party sources said Tuesday.

Merkel seeks to extend Covid-19 measures as Germans grumble
Angela Merkel on February 3rd. Photo: DPA

As fatigue grows with the partial lockdown in Europe's top economy, Merkel advised against any loosening of the measures before March 1st.

“We would gain nothing if we left lockdown prematurely,” Merkel told members of her CDU party according to meeting participants, ahead of talks Wednesday to set policy on the restrictions.

She said first steps toward a reopening could begin in early March with schools and nurseries, shops and hairdressers but only with clear rules to prevent the spread of the virus.

Otherwise, she argued, “the infection rates could soar again”, the sources quoted her as saying.

The veteran chancellor expressed understanding for “the difficult situation and great challenges for children, families and retailers” but asked for patience to avoid an endless cycle of openings and shutdowns.

Although a majority of Germans still back Merkel's science-based management of the crisis, weariness is setting in after three long winter months of restrictions and amid a sluggish vaccine rollout.

READ ALSO: Should Germany's lockdown be tightened further over virus variants

As the campaign for a general election in September to replace the outgoing Merkel begins to take shape, raising the political stakes, a YouGov poll this week showed that just half of Germans wanted current measures to be maintained or tightened.

That was down from nearly 65 percent in early January, when new daily infections were still near 20,000 with roughly 1,000 deaths a day reported.

Since then, new Covid-19 cases have dropped considerably and the seven-day incidence rate — the number of new infections per 100,000 inhabitants over the past week — has fallen below 75 for the first time since November.

But deaths remain troublingly high at nearly 500 per day.

'Turbo' mutations

“We are over the worst of the second wave, but it is not over, of course,” Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert warned Monday.

The country closed restaurants, hotels, culture and leisure centres in November, followed by schools and non-essential shops in December. The measures have since been extended until February 14th.

Merkel and her advisors are nervously eyeing an uncontrolled spread of highly contagious coronavirus variants from Britain and South Africa which they fear could rapidly wipe out any progress made in fighting the pandemic.

Officials have called such “turbo” mutations, both of which have been detected in Germany, a “genuine threat”.

While Merkel's popularity soared due to her steady handling of the coronavirus outbreak and is still hovering at around 70 percent, only 55 percent of Germans said last week they were satisfied with her government's policies on the pandemic.

That figure was down five points since January and the lowest rating since the shutdown measures began last March.

No 'miracle cure'

The relatively slow distribution of vaccines within the EU has done much to sap good will, with 57 percent of Germans saying they don't believe Merkel's pledge that everyone who wants the jab will get one by the end of September.

The YouGov survey found that 19 percent blamed Merkel's government for the delays, 17 percent the EU and 11 percent the manufacturers. One-third of respondents said each shared equal responsibility.

The powerful Federation of German Industry (BDI) expressed exasperation with the government's incremental measures, demanding a “clear” roadmap with “fair” criteria for reopening the economy.

Conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said the German decision-making was complicated by a look around Europe, where even countries with much higher infection rates and death tolls had granted their citizens greater freedoms.

“Hairdressers are opening in Austria, shoppers are thronging the Champs-Elysees in Paris, as cinemas reopen in Belgium,” it said, while adding that “no country has really found the miracle cure to all of this”.

READ ALSO: Calls grow for Germany to offer 'step by step' plan out of lockdown

By Deborah COLE and Peter WUETHERICH

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Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Since the start of Germany’s Oktoberfest, the incidence of Covid infections in Munich has risen sharply. Though a connection with the festival can’t yet be proven, it seems likely.

Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Two weeks after the start of Oktoberfest, the Covid numbers in Munich have more than tripled.

On Sunday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported an incidence of 768.7 for the city of Munich, though updated figures for the end of the festival are not expected until later in the week. Usually, on weekends and public holidays, there is a delay in reports.

In the entire state of Bavaria, the incidence value on Sunday was 692.5.

According to Munich’s public health officer, Beatrix Zurek, bed occupancy in Munich hospitals has also increased. Two weeks ago, 200 beds in Munich were occupied by Covid patients, whereas there are now around 350.

Though a relationship between the sharp rise in infections with Oktoberfest, which ended on Monday, can’t be proven at the moment, it seems very likely, according to experts. A significant increase in Covid incidences has also been shown at other public festivals – about one and a half weeks after the start. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s famed Oktoberfest opens after two-year pandemic hiatus

After a two-year break due to the pandemic, around 5.7 million visitors came to this year’s Wiesn according to the festival management – around 600,000 fewer than at the last Oktoberfest before the pandemic in 2019, when there were 6.3 million.

Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) took to Twitter to comment on the rise in incidence in Munich during the Oktoberfest. “This would not have been necessary if self-tests had been taken before admission,” he said.

“Compared to the price of a measure of beer, €2-3 (for tests) wouldn’t have mattered,” he said.

Even before the start of the Wiesn, he had spoken out in favour of people taking voluntary self-tests. Lauterbach stressed that now is the time for special measures against Covid.

“The development shows what will happen if the states wait too long with the mask obligation in indoor areas,” he added.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

In neighbouring counties, where many Oktoberfest visitors came from, the number of Covid cases has also risen noticeably.  Beatrix Zurek said that it is unclear, however, how much of a role Oktoberfest played in these figures, as people are currently much more active socially overall, with concerts and other events also taking place throughout the state.

Christoph Spinner, an infections specialist at Munich’s Klinikum, has urged people not to be alarmed by the rising numbers.

“We had expected rising incidences here. We knew that there could be a doubling, tripling, even quadrupling,” he said.

He said that this is no cause for concern, as many people have been vaccinated or have also recovered from previous Covid infections, so any new infections are therefore usually mild.

The virologist advises people over 60 or with pre-existing conditions to get a second booster vaccination, but otherwise said people shouldn’t be alarmed by the rising incidences.