German Chancellor Angela Merkel has ditched a plan for a five-day shutdown over Easter to try to contain a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic after the hastily-conceived proposal triggered a backlash.
At talks that ran into the early hours of Tuesday, Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states had agreed to call on citizens to stay at home for five days over the Easter holidays, declaring April 1 and April 3 as extra “rest days”. Easter Sunday is on April 4.
The measure would have meant all stores, including essential ones, closing for an extra day. It would have effectively created a five-day shutdown of public life on top of existing lockdown restrictions, which have been extended until April 18.
But the plan was sharply criticised, with businesses lamenting more shutdowns and medical experts saying the new measures were not tough enough to prevent the exponential spread of more infectious variants of the virus.
Backtracking on Wednesday, Merkel said the idea was “drafted with the best of intentions” but had ultimately proven a “mistake” and apologised for the added uncertainty that it had raised for Germans.
“There were good reasons for it but it could not be implemented well enough in this short time,” she told reporters. “This mistake is mine alone.”
The U-turn came as infection numbers in Germany rose again, fuelled by the more contagious variant of the virus that was first detected in the United Kingdom late last year that has now become dominant in the country.
Germany, with a total population of 83 million, reported another 15,813 infections on Wednesday. A week ago, there were 13,435 new cases.
The nationwide death toll rose by 248 to 75,212.
However, the number of cases per 100,000 in the last seven days, which the government has used as a key metric to decide on lockdown steps, was stable at 108.
Merkel on Wednesday said she was “convinced” Germany would beat back the virus, but warned the country needed to urgently “stop and reverse the third wave of the pandemic”.
“The path is difficult and rocky, and it is marked by successes but also by mistakes and setbacks,” she said. “But the virus will slowly but surely become less scary.”
Her comments came against a backdrop of growing public frustration with Merkel’s conservative-led government over the slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and extended lockdown measures.
A poll released on Wednesday showed support for the 66-year-old’s Christian Democratic Union party slumping to its lowest level in more than a year ahead of a national election in September.
Merkel, who has led Germany since 2005, has said she will not stand for a fifth term.