Merkel Imposes Easter Lockdown, Extends Curbs in German Setback

Chancellor Angela Merkel and regional leaders agreed to put Germany into hard lockdown over Easter to try to defuse a “third wave” of Covid-19 infections fueled by faster-spreading mutations.

After more than 11 hours of tense talks that ended early Tuesday, Merkel and state leaders extended existing lockdown measures for four more weeks and postponed plans to reopen Europe’s largest economy. But they failed to reach an agreement on tougher measures such as curfews in hard-hit areas and establish rules for domestic travel.

“We are now in a very, very serious situation,” Merkel said at a news conference that started just after 2:30 a.m. in Berlin. “The case numbers are rising exponentially and intensive-care beds are filling up again,” she said, adding that the number of infections must come down to allow the country’s vaccination campaign to start taking effect.

In the radical Easter shutdown — one of the toughest in Germany since the start of the pandemic — all stores will be shuttered from April 1 for five days, except for food stores which will open on April 3, Merkel said after the video call with the country’s 16 state premiers. Citizens will be encouraged to remain at home, private gatherings limited to one other household and a maximum of five people, and public meetings banned.

The latest steps by Merkel’s increasingly embattled administration are a blow to pandemic-weary Germans. Opinion polls suggest they’re becoming more and more disgruntled with the government’s handling of the crisis just six months ahead of September’s national election.

Angela Merkel attends a vaccination strategy video conference in Berlin on March 22.

Photographer: Filip Singer/Pool/Getty Images

Officials extended Germany’s current lockdown measures until April 18. They will meet again on April 12 to decide how to proceed with the partial lockdown, which has effectively been in place for about four months. The measures — relatively mild compared to other countries — include the partial closing of non-essential stores and the shutdown of hotels, restaurants, gyms and cultural venues.

There were few new concrete steps to control the virus. Merkel reiterated an urgent appeal for citizens to avoid unnecessary domestic and international travel. Businesses were strongly encouraged to test on-site employees, but weren’t required to do so.

“It’s correct to use the Easter period to brake the infections so that the ramp up of inoculations and the many tests can help us control the virus,” Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said Tuesday on ZDF television.

Germany’s Covid-19 incidence rate has nearly doubled in the past month, highlighting Europe’s struggles to contain the pandemic. Amid stuttering vaccination programs across the region, lockdowns have been reimposed in Italy and France in the past week. Austria on Monday canceled plans to further re-open the economy around Easter after surging cases threatened to overwhelm some hospitals.

The European Union has administered doses covering 6.6% of the population, less than a third of what the U.K. has managed, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.

Cases in Germany are rising again after authorities began to relax restrictions in late February and set out a plan to gradually unwind the remaining curbs.

The Robert Koch Institute health agency reported on Tuesday that the national seven-day rate of infections per 100,000 people rose to 108.1. After dropping to 56.8 on Feb. 19, the figure exceeded the so-called “emergency brake” level of 100 for a third straight day.

The provision allows authorities to tighten lockdown measures, and although the threshold has been crossed in ten out of 16 states, many have opted not to take action.

The impact of the resurgent pandemic is reverberating through the economy. Germany aims to borrow 240.2 billion euros ($286 billion) this year, officials said on Monday. The government is taking on just over 60 billion euros more debt than initially planned as it boosts spending to support lockdown-hit companies and fund increased testing and other measures.

Scholz, who is running as the chancellor candidate for the Social Democrats in September’s election, will propose suspending constitutional borrowing limits for a third straight year when he presents a draft 2022 spending plan alongside his supplementary 2021 budget on Wednesday, they added.

Meanwhile, what Merkel termed the “third wave” of the virus appears to be gathering pace, spurred by faster-spreading Covid-19 mutations.

Intensive care units risk being overwhelmed within a few weeks if exponential growth in cases continues, health experts have warned. On Tuesday, the number of Covid-19 patients in German ICUs rose to 3,135, the highest in more than a month.

“We want to avoid our health system becoming overburdened,” Merkel said. “We have managed that throughout this long pandemic journey, and we have to manage that in the coming weeks.”

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