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Pandemic and diplomacy: Germany’s new government takes charge

With a pandemic crisis meeting and debut appearances in Paris and Brussels, Germany's new Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his team hit the ground running on their first day in office Thursday.

picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Pool | Michael Kappeler
Chancellor Olaf Scholz with state leaders on Thursday evening. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Pool | Michael Kappeler

After a ceremony-laden handover from Angela Merkel on Wednesday, Scholz sat down with regional leaders of Germany’s 16 states to discuss the coronavirus pandemic.

No new Covid measures were decided in the meeting. The federal and state governments said that no additional restrictions are planned for the Christmas holidays at this stage, but that the situation would be monitored.

Next week, a council of experts will give a more detailed assessment of the Omicron variant, chairman of the conference Hendrik Wüst (CDU), who is state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, said. If further action is needed, politicians will decide then.

Germany’s Bundestag is, however, debating Covid restrictions on Friday, which would give states more power to implement regional measures such as closures of restaurants.

Leaders on Thursday did underline the need to speed up the inoculation process. 

“We want to act quickly and decisively when it is necessary,” Scholz said after the meeting Thursday, stressing that he wanted “ensure that as many citizens as possible are vaccinated”, including with third booster doses.

With intensive care beds filling up and new variant Omicron adding to fears, Scholz’s coalition of his Social Democrats, the ecologist Greens and the liberal FDP was already dragged into fighting the pandemic before being sworn in.

Underlining the “deadly serious” situation, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier had during Wednesday’s investiture ceremony pointedly urged Scholz to “ensure that the pandemic does not keep us firmly in its grip for another year”.

Scholz, 63, has already called for Germany to follow Austria’s example and introduce mandatory jabs, pushed by Germany’s stagnating inoculation rate.

But he may have many more tough decisions to make.

READ ALSO: Five challenges facing Germany’s new government

‘Difficult chancellorship’

Scholz “stands before a difficult chancellorship”, said the Tagesspiegel daily, noting that the pandemic was not just an epidemiological emergency but also leading to bitter divisions in society.

“Debates are being conducted in an adamant fashion, camps are being formed that are hardly building any bridges to others,” it said, noting that it “would come down to the chancellor” to resolve the bitter divides.

While fighting fires at home, Scholz also took his first step onto the world stage, taking part in a virtual Summit for Democracy organised by the United States.

Scholz is no stranger to the diplomatic circuit, having been mayor of Hamburg when the city played host to the G20 summit and also having served as
finance minister in Merkel’s cabinet over the last four years.

While he has pledged continuity, international observers will be closely watching for any shifts in tone given the switch from a conservative-led government after 16 years to a centre-left-led alliance.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Scholz won’t revolutionise Germany – but change is welcome after Merkel

Paris and Brussels

Scholz will head to Paris on Friday for his first official visit, where he is to meet France’s President Emmanuel Macron.

He will then travel on to Brussels for talks with EU leaders and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg.

But ahead of him, his Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Greens already made her debut appearances in both key European capitals on Thursday.

“Europe is the lynchpin for our foreign policy,” Baerbock said in a statement ahead of the visit.

“We will not seek to pursue our ideas and interests… at the cost of” Germany’s neighbours, she added.

Baerbock, who is Germany’s first woman foreign minister, has pledged to take a tougher line with authoritarian states like Russia and China after the business-driven pragmatism of Merkel’s era.

And the first signs of friction within the freshly minted government could well arise from here, as Scholz has so far taken a cautious tone on issues such as the US’ diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Even as Baerbock was about to embark on her trips, Scholz appeared to assert his authority over her portfolio.

Asked at a TV interview on Wednesday if Baerbock or he will determine foreign policy, Scholz said that “we will act together as a government – and that starts with the head of government”.

That may appear obvious. But as Spiegel noted, “given the differing views within the coalition, the statement is significant”.

By Hui Min NEO

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TRAVEL NEWS

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

The mandatory EU-wide mask requirement for air travel is set to be dropped from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still require passengers to wear masks on some or all flights

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

Europe-wide facemask rules on flights are set to be ditched as early as next week in light of new recommendations from health and air safety experts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dropped recommendations for mandatory mask-wearing in airports and during flights in updated Covid-19 safety measures for travel issued on Wednesday, May 11th.

The new rules are expected to be rolled out from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still continue to require the wearing of masks on some or all of flights. And the updated health safety measures still say that wearing a face mask remains one of the best ways to protect against the transmission of the virus.

The joint EASA/ECDC statement reminded travellers that masks may still be required on flights to destinations in certain countries that still require the wearing of masks on public transport and in transport hubs.

It also recommends that vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask which offers a higher level of protection than a standard surgical mask.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said in the statement. 

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”  

ECDC director Andrea Ammon added: “The development and continuous updates to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have given travellers and aviation personnel better knowledge of the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. 

“While risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal. 

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission. 

“The rules and requirements of departure and destination states should be respected and applied consistently, and travel operators should take care to inform passengers of any required measures in a timely manner.”

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