The leader of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party pushed back Monday against the chancellor's criticism that some of Germany's 16 states are straying from agreed Covid-19 measures, insisting they are taking the pandemic seriously.
In an interview with the ARD broadcaster on Sunday night, Merkel had called several states out for failing to impose "emergency brake" rules requiring renewed restrictions for regions with high incidence rates.
She also directly criticised CDU chief Armin Laschet, who is also the state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, for "choosing an implementation that carries too much room for manoeuvre".
But Laschet on Monday hit back, saying it "doesn't help us if the federal government and states are pushing responsibility onto each other".
He insisted that all 16 state premiers are "taking this very seriously".
"Everyone wants the number of infections to go down and everyone has taken the appropriate measures for their state, which are very different," he said.
Laschet also defended Tobias Hans, state premier of the small southwestern state of Saarland, who had been heavily criticised over his plans to end a shutdown as early as April 6.
- 'Broad interpretation' -
At a tense meeting last week, Merkel and the regional leaders had agreed to stick to national rules including strict shutdowns and curfews in areas with more than 100 new infections per 100,000 people over seven days.
But under Germany's federal system, each state can ultimately decide its own rules and some have failed to impose curfews and gone ahead with reopening measures.
Laschet's government in Germany's most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia has ordered new curbs for the hardest hit districts, while at the same time offering an escape clause of keeping shops or museums open if people undergo rapid testing.
Asked if Laschet's actions went against what was agreed, Merkel said: "There are several states that have taken a very broad interpretation, and that does not fill me with joy."
The direct slapdown by Merkel came as the CDU and Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union saw support plunging in polls to 25 percent, just two points clear of the Greens and almost eight points below their score at the last election in 2017.
It also came just before the CDU-CSU conservative alliance is due to decide who will lead it into Germany's next general election on September 26.
Elected as head of the CDU in January, Laschet is in pole position to lead the alliance but his poor standing in national polls has prompted speculation that popular Bavarian premier Markus Soeder could be a better choice.
A day before Laschet was due to give a key speech on the CDU's election campaign, several lawmakers from his own party spoke out in favour of Soeder.
"On my side, I know practically no one who is for Armin Laschet," CDU MP Johannes Steiniger told Der Spiegel magazine.
- Exponential growth -
Merkel's conservatives had enjoyed a popularity surge last year as the country came through the first wave of the pandemic relatively unscathed.
But the mood has soured in recent months as renewed shutdowns since the autumn failed to bring down infection rates sustainably and a vaccination campaign has so far proved sluggish.
The conservatives have also suffered from a corruption scandal dubbed the "mask affair", in which several CDU-CSU politicians are accused of profiting directly or indirectly from procurement contracts.
The rapid spread of the British coronavirus variant in Germany has led to exponential growth in new cases in recent weeks, just as the country was taking first steps towards reopening.
The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) health agency reported 9,872 new cases in 24 hours on Monday and a national incidence rate of 134.4 per 100,000 people over the last seven days.