Berlin: German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday admitted a failed Easter virus shutdown plan was “my mistake” and asked the public to forgive her, in a rare climbdown amid massive criticism of the government’s pandemic response.
Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states had agreed at marathon talks on Monday that almost all shops were to be closed on April 1-5, with only grocers allowed to open on Saturday April 3.
But they decided at a crisis meeting called by Merkel on Wednesday to scrap that measure, instead appealing to the public to stay home over the Easter weekend.
“This mistake is mine alone,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin, adding that she bore “the ultimate responsibility” for the decision, which had led to fierce criticism.
“The whole process has caused additional uncertainty, for which I ask all citizens to forgive me,” she said.
The leaders had agreed the measure was “not enforceable in this form”, Armin Laschet, the head of Merkel’s CDU party, told a regional parliament meeting in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Merkel acknowledged that there were prohibitive hurdles to shutting the economy down for five days next week with so little notice including open questions about holiday pay and supply chain issues.
The toughened but temporary shutdown had prompted a dramatic uproar, with the Bild daily calling the government’s pandemic management a “mess”.
“Merkel and the (regional leaders) have lost sight of the real problem,” it said.
Der Spiegel called the measures a “scandal”, claiming the government had “completely the wrong priorities” and should instead focus on improving its vaccination campaign and test strategy.
The leaders also urged churches to hold services online over Easter, leading to some consternation within Merkel’s CDU-CSU conservative alliance.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said he was “astonished that of all the parties, those with a C (for Christian) in their name are suggesting that churches should refrain from holding services, especially at Easter”.
Opposition politicians on Wednesday called for a motion of no confidence in parliament, but Merkel insisted she had the full backing of her right-left coalition government.
Besides the Easter shutdown, Merkel and the regional leaders agreed on Monday night to extend existing virus restrictions including keeping cultural, leisure and sporting facilities shut through to April 18.
The leaders also agreed to “appeal urgently to all citizens to refrain from non-essential travel within the country and also abroad” as a row erupted over hundreds of extra scheduled flights to the Spanish holiday island of Mallorca.
Merkel’s spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said Wednesday the government was considering a temporary ban on trips to certain foreign holiday destinations to help curb the spread of the virus.
It is also now relying on rapid tests to help keep schools partially open and potentially revive hospitality and other activities in areas with lower incidence rates.
Germany was widely praised for its handling of the first wave of the pandemic, but has struggled to contain new infections since they began spiralling out of control in a second wave late last year.
“The situation is serious. Case numbers are rising exponentially and intensive care beds are filling up again,” Merkel said after announcing measures on Monday.
The British variant has become the dominant strain circulating in Germany, she said, noting: “We are in a new pandemic.”
Numbers continue to rise, with 15,813 new cases reported in 24 hours on Wednesday by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) health agency and an incidence rate of 108.1 per 100,000 people over seven days.
With patience running thin over a sluggish vaccine rollout, delayed rapid testing and a corruption scandal over mask procurement contracts, the CDU’s support has plunged to its lowest level for a year.
Europe’s top economy will elect a new government in September, as Merkel is retiring after 16 years in power.
One survey on Wednesday had the party polling at just 26 per cent, well below the 32.9 per cent it secured in 2017 elections.