EXPLAINED: What prompted Merkel to make a sudden U-turn on Easter shutdown in Germany?

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement to the press on Wednesday that she was cancelling the Easter shutdown resolved some questions, but left others wide open. Here's what we know, and what we still don’t.

EXPLAINED: What prompted Merkel to make a sudden U-turn on Easter shutdown in Germany?
A church in Bamberg, Bavaria. dpa | Nicolas Armer

Speaking just after midday Merkel made a dramatic announcement. She called the decision to go into Germany’s toughest lockdown yet, by closing down the economy over the five days of Easter, “a mistake.”

It was made with the best of intentions but was not implementable in the short time available, she said.

READ ALSO: Merkel admits Easter coronavirus shutdown plan her ‘mistake alone’

Why did she perform this U-turn?

The decision to turn Maundy Thursday and Easter Saturday into one-off “days of rest” had caused huge amounts of confusion. The term Merkel used, Ruhetag (day of rest), does not have a clear legal definition. 

Employers were left scratching their heads over whether Merkel meant that the two days were to become one-off public holidays. That would have had important implications. Businesses would have had to pay workers to stay at home.

But to enforce this, the German states would have first had to create new laws anchoring these two days as public holidays.

There was also concern over how supplies chains could be altered at such short notice.

Given the very limited time to make these arrangements, Merkel decided that the plan was a mistake and dropped the label Ruhetag.

That means people will be expected to work on Thursday and Saturday as normal. Shops will also be able to stay open on those two days.

What about church services?

There was also considerable anger on Tuesday over the decision to discourage church attendance on the most important weekend in the Christian calendar.

“It has amazed me that parties with the C (for Christian) in their name, of all things, are suggesting that churches refrain from holding services, even more so at Easter,” Interior Minister Seehofer told Bild newspaper.

Merkel did not specifically address church services in her press conference on Wednesday.

But the government also seems to be stepping back from its insistence on moving church services online.

Merkel’s deputy spokesperson Ulrike Demmer assured worshippers on Wednesday afternoon that the government was “looking for solutions” and was already in discussions with representatives of the Catholic and Protestant churches.

Church leaders had said that they wanted to have worshippers inside churches on Easter Sunday.

The state of Saxony has already made clear that it will not stand in the way of churches that want to hold church services with worshipers in attendance.

Contact restrictions

The government published an update on its website on Wednesday afternoon stating that “as before, private meetings are only possible during this time [Easter] with a maximum of 5 people from two households, plus children up to 14 years of age.”

At first glance this doesn’t change anything. At the same time there is no longer a reference to a “ban on gathering” in public spaces. This rule already created some confusion, as it was vague about what exactly constitutes a gathering.

On Monday, Merkel said that over the five days of Easter people should stay at home.

As Merkel made no specific mention of small gatherings on Wednesday, it remains unclear whether the government wants people to be able to sit outside. This is likely to be specified in the coming days when each individual state lays out its own plans.

Bavarian leader Markus Söder said on Wednesday that the U-turn “only means one things in Bavaria: Thursday and Saturday are no longer days of rest.”

READ MORE: Merkel admits Easter coronavirus shutdown plan her ‘mistake alone’

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Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany.