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ANGELA MERKEL

‘The virus is our opponent’: Merkel defends Germany’s shutdown extension

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) addressed the Bundestag on Thursday morning about why she felt it was necessary to extend Germany’s shutdown until March 7th.

'The virus is our opponent': Merkel defends Germany's shutdown extension
Merkel speaking to the Bundestag on Thursday morning. Photo: DPA

“We have come a long way in this year of the pandemic, a very long way.” Together, she said, we succeeded in preventing the health care system from being overburdened.

“Vaccination is gaining momentum. Infection numbers are on the way down.”

But a major threat makes extending the lockdown necessary, she said. 

Covid-19 mutations, which have now been detected in 13 out of 16 German states, have led to more aggressive viral variants, she said. 

“The vast majority of the restrictive measures must be maintained consistently,” stressed the Chancellor. 

The virus doesn't listen to dates, said Merkel, pointing out that it's difficult to give specific days when businesses and other institutions can reopen. Rather, it depends on infection numbers and how quickly they spread.

“We're sort of going into a battle with the virus, which is our opponent,” she said.

Merkel also admitted that Germany made mistakes in its handing of the pandemic in the late summer. In spring 2020, the country was generally lauded for keeping new infection numbers low.

“The first wave last spring hit Germany far less than other countries,” she said.

However, the government's approach at the end of summer and beginning of autumn, she said, was “too hesitant”.

“Then we were not careful enough and not fast enough,” she said.

Change of plans

Originally Merkel called for the current shutdown – set to last until Sunday February 14th – to be extended to March 15th, but she reached a compromise with state leaders on Wednesday evening.

READ ALSO: Germany extends Covid-19 lockdown measures to March 7th

She had wanted school openings to be decided on the basis of incidence, but accepted that it would be up for individual states to decide their own opening times. 

Both Merkel and state leaders also agreed for hair salons – which had to close in mid-December – to be able to reopen on March 1st, citing “personal hygiene” reasons. 

Merkel said she understood the difficulties everyone in the country is going through, and vowed to lift restrictions as soon as possible. 

However, while several health care workers lauded Merkel’s speech, it was also met with criticism in follow-up speeches from other Bundestag members.

“The children in this country deserve much better,” said Green party parliamentary leader Katrin Göring-Eckardt, stressing that school shutdowns have dragged on too long and that reopenings could be facilitated again nationwide with the the help of rapid tests. 

“Many people were expecting more than just a fresh haircut,” said Free Democratic (FDP) leader Christian Lindner.

READ ALSO: Hair salons in Germany to reopen on March 1st

He criticised the toll that extending the lockdown would take on businesses, many which have been closed since Germany first introduced a “lockdown light” at the beginning of November.

As of Thursday morning, Germany had a rate of 64 new infections per 100,000 people in the population, according to the Robert Koch Institute, and 10,237 infections within the last 24 hours. There were 666 new deaths within the same time period.


 

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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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