Merkel under pressure to spell out plan to beat virus surge

Joseph Nasr
·3-min read
FILE PHOTO: German Chancellor Merkel speaks at the Bundestag, in Berlin

By Joseph Nasr

BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel faced growing criticism on Monday for failing to spell out a plan to reverse rising coronavirus infections in Germany and blaming uncooperative state premiers for an increasingly chaotic management of the crisis.

The clock is ticking for Germany to reverse soaring infections which, according to its top public health official, could jump to 100,000 a day from 20,000 now.

Germany stepped up lockdown measures in December to contain a second wave of infections, which has now turned into a third wave although with fewer deaths.

Merkel raised the possibility during a broadcast interview on Sunday of amending the Infection Protection Act to oblige Germany's 16 states, which wield power over health and security issues, to implement certain measures.

But she failed to say what that would entail, prompting rebukes from opposition parties and newspapers that she was "clueless" and "still has no plan".

Merkel, whose conservatives are falling in the polls ahead of an election in September, expressed dissatisfaction with some state premiers for failing to reverse measures to reopen parts of the economy when cases start to rise, as agreed on March 3.

"Merkel should appear before parliament and state clearly how she sees the situation and what her proposals are," Christian Lindner, leader of the opposition Free Democrats, told Phoenix television.

In the clearest sign that her authority is waning six months before her fourth and last term ends, Merkel said the leader of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party had breached the March agreement by failing to re-impose lockdown measures in his own state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).

'WASTED OPPORTUNITY'

NRW premier Armin Laschet, also a potential conservative candidate for chancellor, hit back at Merkel, saying his state had imposed a so-called "emergency break" by requiring people to test negative before visiting some shops.

"I am open to every proposal from the federal government on what we could do better," said Laschet, suggesting that video crisis summits between Merkel and state premiers should be in person to bring better results.

Most state leaders have rejected Merkel's plans to shut schools and day care centres if infections surge and many have chosen to keep many shops, garden centres and hairdressers open even as the 7-day incidence rate per 100,000 jumped to 134.

Germany has never had lockdowns as strict as France or Britain, partly in order to limit economic damage, but also due to an aversion to drastic restrictions on freedoms in a country still wary of its Nazi past.

But leading economists who had advocated softer lockdowns and are now attacking Merkel's dithering.

"In a situation like this you cannot say, 'let us wait another 10 days," Clemens Fuest, head of the Ifo economic institute, told MDR radio, urging Merkel to agree a two-week hard lockdown over Easter with state leaders or risk more damage to the economy. "The Easter holiday is a chance to do something. To let it slip by is incomprehensible."

Asked on Sunday whether she had lost her authority and ability to govern, Merkel replied: "No."

But frustrations over a sluggish vaccination campaign, a face mask corruption scandal involving two conservative lawmakers and the lack of a clear timetable out of the crisis are expected to hand Merkel's conservative bloc their worst-ever election result in September.

Merkel caused confusion last week when she ditched a decision to prolong the Easter holiday by a day in an attempt to break the third wave. Many saw her ensuing apology as insufficient to reassure a sceptical public.

Der Spiegel magazine said of Merkel's televised interview: "Her apology was very impressive. But Merkel has shown that she has no plan."

(Editing by Giles Elgood)