Merkel Reverses Easter Lockdown Plan in Germany, Apologizing for ‘Mistake’

Merkel Reverses Easter Lockdown Plan in Germany, Apologizing
for ‘Mistake’ 1

The German chancellor had proposed extending the Easter holiday by two days to help contain the latest wave of the pandemic, but scrapped the plan after it was roundly condemned.

BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday scrapped an unpopular plan to shut the German economy for two extra days over Easter, apologizing for what she called “a mistake” amid widespread anger over her government’s increasingly chaotic approach to combating the coronavirus.

The chancellor’s reversal came less than 36 hours after she proposed two additional “off days” around Easter, effectively extending the existing holiday to five consecutive days in hopes of halting a spike in coronavirus infections. The suggestion — made after nearly 12 hours of deliberations between Ms. Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states — was met with an almost immediate backlash because it would have required businesses to close.

Faced with criticism from both her own conservative bloc and from opposition politicians, along with a flood of complaints from a public worn out by 12 months of lockdowns and reopenings, the chancellor called a quick news conference and announced her decision to reverse course.

“The idea of an Easter shutdown was made with the best intentions, because we must be able to slow and reverse the third wave of the pandemic,” she said. “Nevertheless, the idea of the extended Easter break was a mistake, one with good reasons, but that was not possible to implement in such a short period of time.”

Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

A year ago, Ms. Merkel won praise at home and abroad for her clearly communicated, science-based approach to managing the pandemic, letting her health minister and medical experts handle daily updates. But 12 months later, a series of conflicting decisions, like banning travel within Germany, but allowing Germans to fly to the Spanish resort of Mallorca, and announcing key policy changes at late-night or last-minute news conferences, has tarnished her reputation.

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“Last year, it was a perfect mix of true leadership communication on a regular basis,” said Andrea Römmele, dean of the Hertie School in Berlin. “Now in the third wave, the relevance and the consistency of that communication approach has been forgotten and lost.”

At the same time, Germany is seeing increasing skepticism about the government, fueled by online conspiracy theories and the far-right Alternative for Germany party, whose confrontational approach has led to a breakdown of consensus-driven politics in Parliament.

The conservative bloc has also been hit by a scandal in which several lawmakers resigned over revelations they had earned six-figure fees for facilitating the sale of medical-grade masks amid worldwide shortages last year, at a time when millions of Germans were locked down and out of work.

“I think the handling has been weak,” Leoni Nagler, 19, a student in Berlin said of the performance of Ms. Merkel’s government over the past 12 months. “It’s been a year and things are, if anything, worse.”

Ms. Nagler said her faith in the government took a hit last fall when it imposed a light lockdown that had to be extended and tightened when it didn’t work. The government responded by introducing more restrictions on public life starting in mid-December that have yet to be fully lifted.

Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

Heading into Monday’s meeting, the chancellor and state leaders had hoped they would be able to announce the possibility of travel over the long Easter weekend, widely viewed as the start of the German travel season, when thousands flock to the beaches in the north and the mountains in the south, or roll out their campers for road trips.

Instead, a bleary-eyed Ms. Merkel appeared before the cameras early Tuesday to not only announce that existing restrictions would be extended through April 18 — including limits on gatherings over Easter, including in churches — but to propose the two extra “off” days.

By Wednesday, the criticism was pouring in not only from the opposition, but from within the ranks of the chancellor’s own Christian Democrats. “Since yesterday we have furious farmers, merchants and butchers on the line,” Jana Schimke, a Christian Democrat lawmaker, wrote on Twitter, urging the chancellor to reverse course.

“There is growing concern across the economy about long-lasting, irreparable damage,” said Siegfried Russwurm, president of the powerful B.D.I. association of German industries. He stressed the need for a “coherent pandemic concept” and urged leaders to factor more than the number of infections into their risk calculations.

For weeks, Germany has seen the number of new infections spike after a sustained period of decline, as the British variant spreads through the country. At the same time, less than 10 percent of people eligible for a vaccine have received one because of delivery troubles and a vaccine campaign hampered by bureaucracy and lack of flexibility.

“A mistake must be called a mistake,” the chancellor said in announcing her reversal. “I know that this whole procedure has created additional confusion, I ask for your forgiveness.”

Lena Mucha for The New York Times

The reversal was the just the latest in a series of chaotic moves by Ms. Merkel’s government. Her health minister last week abruptly announced the country was halting vaccinations with AstraZeneca, only to reverse course after the European drug regulator cleared it for use.

The suspension set Germany back several days in its vaccine campaign and further weakened trust in AstraZeneca. The company’s vaccine was already suffering from an image problem in Germany after experts initially limited its use to adults 64 and younger, citing a lack of information on the effects in older people. That decision was reversed several weeks later.

Despite the frustrations, many Germans realize the only way to stop the virus from spreading is to reduce contact between people and retreat again to their homes. As onerous as that idea may be after a year of restrictions, nearly a third of Germans surveyed last week said the government’s measures had not gone far enough.

The number of new infections in the country has climbed steadily since early March. Many intensive care stations have no more than two beds free.

“I think they’re not focusing enough on the long term goals and too much on details and formalities,” said Anni Koch, 24. “We might need to go through another full lockdown, which would be annoying, but maybe necessary.”

Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting.

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