Covid-19: Merkel warns of mutations amid push for looser lockdown

Reopening hair salons only point of agreement between chancellor and state leaders

German chancellor Angela Merkel: A wider spread of more infectious virus variants ‘may destroy any success’ achieved by months of lockdown. Photograph: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

German chancellor Angela Merkel: A wider spread of more infectious virus variants ‘may destroy any success’ achieved by months of lockdown. Photograph: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

 

A year ago, Germany was the envy of the world in the first wave of Covid-19 infection and lockdown. Now chancellor Angela Merkel faces a lonely battle on three fronts: a bumpy vaccination programme, mutinous state leaders and a restless population desperate for a haircut.

Reopening hair salons on March 1st, 11 weeks after they closed, was the only point of agreement between the chancellor and powerful regional politicians in their latest video conference.

Hours later, in a rare admission of defeat, Merkel said she was powerless to stop state leaders rushing to reopen schools and shops by March 7th at the latest. Germany’s 16 federal states, not Merkel’s federal government in Berlin, are largely responsible for health and education matters. And regional leaders told the chancellor they are feeling huge pressure from voters to reopen schools and childcare.

Malu Dreyer, minister-president of Rhineland-Palatinate in the southwest, reportedly told the meeting: “People are kaput.”

Circuit breaker

The chancellor’s only strategic success was to secure a shift from a calendar-based lockdown approach to a new circuit-breaker model, allowing looser rules when infection rates drop to a new, lower level of 35 cases per 100,000 people.

“We have to be extremely cautious that we don’t get into this exponential-growth spiral again,” Merkel said on Thursday to members of parliament in the Bundestag and a television audience. A wider spread of more infectious virus variants, she added, “may destroy any success” already achieved by the months of lockdown.

While looser than Ireland’s lockdown, Germany has closed all schools and non-essential shops and services, while employers have been urged to allow staff to work from home.

Medical-grade masks are required in shops and on public transport and personal contact is limited to one person outside each household.

Infection rate

While Germany’s infection rate is falling at a rate of 20 per cent per week, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases noted more than 10,200 new infections in the previous 24 hours on Thursday. A total of 666 new coronavirus deaths were reported on Thursday, bringing the total death toll to 63,635.

As part of a wider downward trend, Germany’s infection rate is at 64.2 new infections per 100,000 people in the past seven days. By comparison, just before Christmas the infection rate reached a high of nearly 200.

Regional leaders have been hugely critical of Berlin for the slow pace in delivering emergency business payments and vaccine doses.

According to the RKI, some 2.4 million Germans have received their first vaccine jab – equivalent to 2.9 per cent of the population – while 1.1 million have been given both doses – 1.3 per cent of the population.

Germany has prioritised vaccinating older population groups, but bringing forward school reopenings has prompted state leaders to mull a new programme to prioritise teacher vaccinations.

A government paper on Thursday suggested all people over 18 in Germany should be vaccinated by September.

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