Merkel takes blame as Germany axes Easter virus shutdown

·3-min read
"The mistake is mine alone," Angela Merkel told reporters in Berlin

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday admitted a failed plan for a strict Easter virus shutdown was "my mistake" in a rare climbdown amid massive criticism of the government's pandemic response.

Merkel and the leaders of Germany's 16 states had agreed at marathon talks on Monday that almost all shops were to be closed on April 1-5, with only grocers allowed to open on Saturday April 3.

But they decided at a crisis meeting called by Merkel on Wednesday to scrap that measure, instead appealing to the public to stay home over the Easter weekend.

"This mistake is mine alone," Merkel told reporters in Berlin, adding that she bore "the ultimate responsibility" for the decision, which had led to fierce criticism.

"The whole process has caused additional uncertainty, for which I ask all citizens to forgive me," she said.

The leaders had agreed the measure was "not enforceable in this form", Armin Laschet, the head of Merkel's CDU party, told a regional parliament meeting in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Merkel acknowledged that there were prohibitive hurdles to shutting the economy down for five days next week with so little notice including rules for holiday pay and supply chain issues.

Growing discontent over the government's handling of the pandemic has sent the CDU's ratings plummeting as Germany grapples with what experts have called a third wave of the virus.

- 'Wrong priorities' -

The toughened shutdown had prompted a dramatic uproar, with the Bild daily calling the government's pandemic management a "mess".

"Merkel and the (regional leaders) have lost sight of the real problem," it said.

Der Spiegel called the measures a "scandal", claiming the government had "completely the wrong priorities" and should instead focus on improving its vaccination campaign and test strategy.

Opposition politicians on Wednesday called for a vote of confidence in parliament, but Merkel insisted she had the full backing of her right-left coalition government.

Infection numbers continue to rise in Germany, with 15,813 new cases reported in 24 hours on Wednesday by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) health agency.

As well as ordering the Easter shutdown, Merkel and the regional leaders agreed on Monday night to extend existing virus restrictions including keeping cultural, leisure and sporting facilities shut through to April 18.

"The situation is serious. Case numbers are rising exponentially and intensive care beds are filling up again," Merkel said after announcing the measures.

The British variant has become the dominant strain circulating in Germany, she said, noting: "We are in a new pandemic."

But patience is running thin in the country over a sluggish vaccine rollout, a delayed start to mass rapid testing and higher infection numbers despite months of shutdowns, with support for the CDU at its lowest level for a year.

Europe's top economy will elect a new government in September, as Merkel is retiring after 16 years in power.

One survey on Wednesday had the party polling at just 26 percent, well below the 32.9 percent it secured in 2017 elections.

Merkel tried to strike an optimistic note on Wednesday, telling the German public that "we will defeat the virus together".

"The road is hard and bumpy, marked by successes and setbacks. But the virus will slowly lose its terror," she said.