Angela Merkel made an astonishing plea for forgiveness today as she scrapped plans for a strict Easter lockdown in Germany which she said were ‘my mistake, and my mistake alone’.
The planned five-day shutdown – in which even grocery stores would have shut on all but a single day – was agreed between Merkel and state leaders on Monday in a bid to halt the spiralling third wave of Covid-19.
But it faced massive criticism from all sides, with businesses bemoaning the extended lockdown and medical experts saying the new measures were not tough enough to prevent the exponential spread of the virus.
Already under pressure over Germany’s long lockdown and slow vaccine roll-out, Merkel was forced to make a dramatic U-turn only 36 hours later and admit there was no way the Easter closure could be implemented at such short notice.
‘I take the final responsibility for everything,’ Merkel said at a hastily-arranged press conference, adding that ‘a mistake has to be called a mistake, and above all it has to be corrected’.
‘I know that this whole process has caused additional uncertainty. I regret that deeply and I ask all our citizens for forgiveness,’ she said.
Despite the U-turn, more than 37million Germans could be facing curfews and forced to wear masks in their own cars under other measures agreed at the talks.
Merkel’s government has agreed to apply the ultra-strict measures on a local basis to areas where more than 100 people in every 100,000 are infected per week.
But this is already the case in nearly 200 of Germany’s 412 administrative districts – meaning that almost half of the country’s 83million people would be affected.
Regret: Angela Merkel apologised to Germans today after scrapping plans for a highly controversial Easter lockdown which had only been agreed on Monday
Germany’s infection numbers are climbing rapidly again even as the country enters its fourth month of lockdown, a trend blamed partly on the British variant
Deaths have fallen significantly from their winter peak but are now showing signs of picking up again with fewer than 10 per cent of Germans getting their first dose of a vaccine so far
The measures which could kick in across much of Germany would be the toughest that the country has imposed since the pandemic broke out.
France has been under a nationwide curfew for months but Germany has never imposed a blanket stay-at-home rule in the same way as Britain has done.
Areas above the ’emergency brake’ threshold of 100 cases per 100,000 will have to consider compulsory rapid testing as well as new restrictions on social contact.
Local authorities will have the final word but recommendations from Berlin include mask-wearing in cars and a potential night-time curfew to drive down infections.
Around 37million people currently live in districts with an infection rate above 100, according to figures from the German government.
The areas under strict lockdown would include the centre of Berlin as well as major cities such as Frankfurt, Dortmund and Cologne which are all above the threshold.
The new measures were agreed at marathon talks between Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states on Monday.
But their decision to prolong the lockdown into April and tighten the rules over Easter has led to anger at a government already under fire over the vaccine roll-out.
Almost all shops were to be closed in the Easter shutdown from April 1-5 while religious services will be moved online.
But the policy was scrapped at an unexpected second round of talks between Merkel and state premiers on Wednesday.
Merkel admitted there were too many questions about logistical details such as how and when workers would be paid during the shutdown.
Angela Merkel, pictured at a cabinet meeting in Berlin this morning, is under pressure over the lengthy lockdown which has sapped public support for her ruling party
An elderly man gets an injection of the AstraZeneca jab at a vaccination centre in Ebersberg near Munich earlier this week
The new restrictions come as infection numbers continue to rise in Germany, with 15,813 new cases reported in 24 hours on Wednesday.
It compares to 13,435 cases a week ago, bringing the seven-day average to its highest level in nearly two months.
The rising numbers are blamed partly on the British variant of the virus which experts warn could send daily infections back to Christmas levels or worse.
Moreover, only 9.3 per cent of Germany’s population has received a first dose of the vaccine, leaving the vast majority of the country unprotected against the third wave.
Only 4.1 per cent have received two doses, barely better than Britain’s 3.5 per cent even after the UK virtually abandoned second doses in January and February.
The country’s vaccine roll-out has been plagued by problems including unwillingness to take the AstraZeneca shot despite its proven effectiveness.
Germany’s total death toll rose past 75,000 today with another 248 fatalities, as the daily death rate shows signs of climbing again in the slipstream of rising cases.
The prolonged lockdown has slashed support for Merkel’s Christian Democrats, who had been riding high in the polls after Germany’s initial success against the virus.
The party’s ratings have now slumped to their lowest since before the pandemic, throwing September’s election into fresh uncertainty.
Merkel is bowing out after 16 years in power but her party and its Bavarian sister organisation have yet to agree who will run to succeed her.
The party took a kicking from voters in two regional elections earlier this month which were won by the Greens and Social Democrats.