Germany’s coronavirus strategy was thrown into disarray as chancellor Angela Merkel reversed course on a controversial Easter shutdown and apologised to the German people for a policy she admitted had been a mistake.
The U-turn, just two days after an agreement with state leaders, is almost unprecedented in German politics, and reflects deepening public frustration at the government’s handling of the pandemic.
A day after the plan was originally announced at a coronavirus planning meeting with Germany’s state premiers, Merkel apologised at a press conference — her first such apology in her 16 years as chancellor.
“The mistake is mine and mine alone. Because in the end, I bear responsibility as chancellor,” she said. “I regret it deeply, and I ask our citizens for forgiveness.”
Germany has been under lockdown since November, but cases began to rise amid a shortlived loosening earlier in March. Health experts attributed that spike to the combination of the partial reopening and the growing dominance of the B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant, which is more contagious than other strains.
Once seen as a model for coronavirus management earlier in the pandemic, Germany struggled with the second wave, which has now swelled into a third.
Because it has a federal system, in which many decisions are decentralised, it is up to Germany’s 16 states to reach consensus for implementing a national public health strategy. But agreement has proved increasingly hard to achieve, as state leaders’ views have diverged, even as infections soared.
On Wednesday, cases reached 108 per 100,000 residents, meaning that the national seven-day incidence rate had gone over 100 for three days in a row, spurring a planned “emergency brake” that reinstates restrictions.
Merkel acknowledged the “Easter rest” plan was too hastily decided, and that an ensuing day of discussions made clear the legal and technical difficulties of implementation for businesses and public offices.
“It had its good reasons, but it was not implementable in the short time, if it could have ever been implemented in such a way that the cost and benefit were in a halfway reasonable relationship,” Merkel said.
Armin Laschet, the new head of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and president of North Rhine-Westphalia, expressed “great respect” for the way the chancellor had taken responsibility for the botched plan. But he argued state premiers should shoulder more blame.
“We all have to take it upon ourselves. We supported this path and did not contradict it,” he told his state’s parliament.
There has also been growing impatience in Germany with the increasingly fractious tone of Merkel’s meetings with state premiers. On Tuesday, local media reported that state leaders had bickered for hours over loosening restrictions, and the question of why Germany was allowing citizens to take holidays in Mallorca while hotels at home remained closed.
Election year rivalries have also added fuel to the fire. Some critics, including from the Social Democrats, the junior partners in Merkel’s governing coalition, argued that instead of tighter lockdowns on individuals, the government should be focusing on increasing testing and speeding up the vaccination drive.
The CDU, meanwhile, has suffered a major hit to its popularity in recent weeks due to frustration with the pandemic response and in the wake of revelations that two of the party’s MPs earned substantial commissions on deals to procure protective masks.
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The Easter plan even sparked condemnation from some members of the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, over the call for online church services.
“It amazed me that parties with the C in their name, of all things, are suggesting that churches refrain from holding services, even more so at Easter,” said interior minister Horst Seehofer, who is from the CSU.
The last meeting of the prime ministers, on Monday afternoon, lasted late into the night and into early Tuesday morning. At a 2:30am press conference in Berlin after the meeting, Merkel told reporters that tougher measures were necessary to fight back against the B.1.1.7 variant. She described it as being almost like a “new pandemic”.
Although the plans for Easter have been reversed, the extension of the lockdown until April 18 will remain in place.
“The way is hard and rocky,” Merkel said. “But the virus will slowly but surely lose its horror.”