ANALYSIS: Merkel faces mounting pressure to relax Germany’s Covid-19 shutdown

ANALYSIS: Merkel faces mounting pressure to relax Germany's Covid-19 shutdown
Angela Merkel on Wednesday. Photo: DPA
Residents and businesses in Germany are desperate for a plan out of the shutdown, but health experts are warning about Covid-19 variants spreading. Is this Angela Merkel's most testing time yet in the pandemic?

What’s happening?

Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states were set to meet on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the next steps in the pandemic. But the talks will be no easy ride. According to draft proposals, Merkel wants a very cautious reopening of public life.

She is aiming to extend the shutdown until March 28th, but introduce some loosening of restrictions, along with a rapid testing strategy. But states are already going their own way and beginning to open more facilities up again as patience grows thin.

It comes as Germany continues to grapple with vaccine strategy difficulties.

READ ALSO: German government proposes easing of some Covid-19 measures from Monday

The first wave was handled so well. What happened?

It’s almost a year since Germany went into its first lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus, which was first detected in the country in January.

At that time back in March 2020 there was concern and confusion as shops, gyms, bars and restaurants closed. But Merkel made a prime time TV appearance to tell Germans in no uncertain terms to stay at home, underlining how serious the situation was. 

The message got through. Although it wasn’t all plain sailing, Germany managed to get infection numbers down and was lauded across the world for its track, test and trace system.

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In the second wave the problems began with a too little too late approach. Despite a steep rise in numbers, the so-called “lockdown light” was introduced at the beginning of November and was billed as a four-week shutdown to “save Christmas”. Yet it was extended and made progressively tougher in the months that followed.

However, instead of clear communication to people in Germany, the political struggles between the federal government and states seemed to take centre stage.

Recently the Chancellor admitted the country made mistakes in its handing of the pandemic in the late summer.

“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,” Merkel said.

Although Merkel has repeatedly pushed for tougher measures to slow the spread of Covid-19, she has come up against state leaders with differing priorities.

Now, after months of closures and contact restrictions, many residents in Germany wonder what has been achieved.

They are desperate to see a way back to some kind of normality. Businesses, including museums, gyms, bars, cafes and restaurants also want to know when they can reopen again.

But many health experts, including Merkel and Social Democrat Karl Lauterbach are worried about a possible third wave fuelled by variants.

Virologist Christian Drosten estimates that the more infectious mutant B.1.1.7, discovered in Britain, accounts for around half of cases in Germany, and is continuing to spread. 

The daily number of new coronavirus cases has plateaued in recent weeks and is even risen slightly on some days, prompting critics to warn against hasty reopenings.

What are the most recent numbers?

On Tuesday 9,019 new cases and 418 deaths were reported to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) within 24 hours.

The number of infections per 100,000 residents nationwide within a seven day period stood at 64.

The total number of cases in Germany reported is now more than 2.4 million. More than 70,800 people have died.

So what is Merkel pushing for in the next steps?

Germany has already started loosening the shutdown to some extend: schools have begun gradually opening, and hairdressers reopened on March 1st. Some states are also opening up other things such as garden centres.

At the last meeting in February, Merkel said more relaxations could happen when regions achieved under 35 new infections per 100,000 people in seven days. However, this is looking unlikely at this stage as infections have been stagnating, and even rising in some places.

Some politicians, including Schleswig-Holstein’s state premier Daniel Günther (CDU) believe the 35 incidence target is  unrealistic. The northern state has even reopened other facilities this week including zoos and other animal parks.

As The Local reported, the initial plans put forward by the government called for an extension of the shutdown until March 28th but with some reopening allowed before then.

A revised plan was leaked to the press later on Wednesday. This plan proposes that federal and state governments could in future tie their coronavirus policy more closely to a 7-day incidence of 100. With a longer, stable value below this limit, regions could allow certain opening steps, for example in the retail sector.

A similar approach to “click and meet” (where appointments are booked by customers) is also proposed for museums and galleries, and in a later step also for outdoor hospitality.

It also calls for an emergency brake to be put in place which would mean if states go above 100 cases per 100,000 residents, measures would revert back to the current lockdown.

Merkel wants to use rapid antigen Covid-19 tests to allow for more relaxation. Health Minister Jens Spahn announced free tests for all to be introduced on March 1st, but it has been delayed – creating another hurdle for the German government.

READ ALSO: How Germany is betting on rapid Covid-19 tests to ease shutdown

Vaccines a major headache for Germany

Germany’s other huge problem at the moment is vaccinations. At the meeting, Merkel and state leaders will discuss how they can get more people inoculated in the country, perhaps deviating away form the strict prioritisation order to use up AstraZeneca doses.

They will also look at how GPs could carry out vaccinations as well as centres. There are also calls to delay the first and second doses – like the procedure in other countries such as the UK – to get more people jabbed at a faster place.

Bavaria’s premier Markus Söder recently called for the AstraZeneca vaccine to be given out to “anyone who wants it”.

READ ALSO: Bavaria and Saxony push for new nationwide vaccination strategy as concerns grow over Czech Republic


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