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Merkel Tightens German Lockdown in Push to Contain Outbreak

Arne Delfs
·3 min read

(Bloomberg) -- Chancellor Angela Merkel extended Germany’s lockdown and tightened restrictions as pressure mounts on her government to contain the coronavirus spread and speed up vaccinations.

With hundreds dying each day, political tensions have been high and threaten to escalate further amid a rising tide of criticism over the government’s strategy to distribute a Covid-19 shot.

At an ill-tempered meeting on Tuesday, Merkel and state leaders agreed to controversial limits on movement, sharpened restrictions on private gatherings and prolonged hard lockdown measures until at least Jan. 31. Authorities will meet on Jan. 25 to discuss next steps.

“We urge all citizens to restrict contact to the bare minimum,” Merkel said after a virtual meeting with the heads of Germany’s 16 states. “We must get to a point where we can trace virus infections again.”

While officials disagreed over how to slow the spread, there was broad consensus that action was needed. Despite hard shutdown restrictions for weeks, contagion rates are still more than double the level the government has determined to be manageable.

Germany registered a further 957 fatalities on Tuesday, taking the total above 35,000. The number of infections has doubled since the end of November to almost 1.8 million.

With a national election looming in September, party politics is intruding on Germany’s efforts to stem the pandemic. Top officials from the Social Democrats -- the junior partner in the ruling coalition -- attacked Health Minister Jens Spahn, a leading figure in Merkel’s Christian Democrats, over apparent delays.

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz -- the SPD’s chancellor candidate -- on Monday presented Spahn with a lengthy list of questions about why vaccinations aren’t happening faster, Bild newspaper reported.

The crisis is set to be discussed after a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, with Merkel, Spahn and other ministers looking at ways of accelerating inoculations.

“The behavior of the SPD chancellor candidate shows that our coalition partners are already in campaign mode,” said Georg Nuesslein, a member of Merkel’s parliamentary bloc. “Considering the government’s current to-do list, that is of great concern.”

Merkel has been drawn into the controversy after Bild published a June letter from Spahn that indicated the German leader was behind the strategy to hand off vaccine procurement to the European Commission.

Germany’s new restrictions on movement, which were opposed by some regional officials, will affect many of the country’s major cities, particularly in the hard-hit states of Bavaria and Saxony. Nuremberg, Dresden, Potsdam and dozens of others have incidence rates above the 200 threshold. Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich are below that level, according to the RKI public health institute.

As hospitals fill up, Merkel is coming under increasing scrutiny over her decision in the summer to task the European Union with negotiating with drug companies, a move critics say slowed the process and reduced the quantity of jabs available. She defended the practice, saying Germany “didn’t want to go it alone nationally.”

According to the latest data from RKI, about 317,000 people had been immunized in Germany through midday Tuesday, just under 0.4% of the population. That compares with around 1.4% in the U.S. and Britain, which both began vaccinating several weeks earlier, and about 0.2% in Italy and Spain.

Germany is now seeking to accelerate the production and distribution of vaccines. Merkel said she hopes that BioNTech SE’s facility in Marburg will be running by the end of February, adding that Germany should have significantly more doses available in the second quarter.

Spahn told ARD television Tuesday that there wouldn’t be any magical solutions overnight. “We have to be realistic,” he said. “This won’t be done quicker than around the summertime in many countries in the world.”

(Recasts with confirmation, Merkel comments)

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