Germany is “in a new pandemic” in which the British Covid variant is dominant, Angela Merkel has said, as she announced a strict shutdown over Easter to halt soaring infection rates.
Merkel said the country was in a “very serious” situation and was racing to get vaccinations done. Social gatherings would be limited over Easter, with 1 – 5 April designated “quiet days” when no more than five adults from two households will be able to meet at home at once.
“We are now basically in a new pandemic. The British mutation has become dominant,” Merkel said at a news conference on Monday night.
Merkel also voiced support for EU chief Ursula von der Leyen’s threat to block AstraZeneca vaccines produced in the bloc from being exported, ahead of a crunch EU summit on Thursday on the escalating row.
“I support Commission President Ursula von der Leyen,” said Merkel. “We have a problem with AstraZeneca,” she added. “We will decide responsibly.”
In a warning to the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical giant last Saturday, von der Leyen said: “That’s the message to AstraZeneca: you fulfil your contract with Europe first before you start delivering to other countries.”
The new restrictions in Germany come as the World Health Organization (WHO) said the weekly global count of deaths from Covid-19 was rising again after about six weeks of declines.
Merkel said people should stay at home over the extended Easter period and that for most of that time, only food shops will be open. Churches will be asked to hold services online only.
“The situation is serious. Case numbers are rising exponentially and intensive care beds are filling up again,” said Merkel.
Merkel’s words were echoed by Markus Söder, the premier of Bavaria, who said: “We are now in the most dangerous phase of the pandemic.”
The chancellor had been meeting leaders of Germany’s 16 states in what were supposed to be talks about a further easting of restrictions, but instead agreed to pause the planned reopening of bars, restaurants, leisure and cultural venues until 18 April.
Before the meeting, the Robert Koch Institute for Infectious Diseases reported that case levels had passed a key marker.
The number of infections per 100,000 inhabitants hit 107 on Monday, above the 100 threshold at which it is deemed that Germany’s intensive care units will no longer be able to cope. On Tuesday, the country recorded nearly 7,500 fresh cases and 250 more deaths, taking the cumulative totals to 2,674,710 cases and 74,964 fatalities.
Under the new restrictions, staff who can work from home will be asked to continue doing so until 18 April rather than return to the workplace on 28 March.
Merkel said the government was advising against all travel abroad and had agreed with airlines that returnees should be tested before flying.
The leaders agreed to “appeal urgently to all citizens to refrain from non-essential travel within the country and also abroad – also with regard to the upcoming Easter holidays”.
The country had successfully suppressed infections over the summer, but by early January cases had risen dramatically, with more than 15% of tests returning positive readings on 3 January. Measures again reduced them by mid February and schools reopened at the end of February, followed by hairdressers and some shops and businesses in March.
Germany’s new measures came as a top WHO expert said the weekly global count of deaths from Covid-19 was rising again, a “worrying sign” after about six weeks of declines.
Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead on Covid-19 at the UN health agency, said the growth followed a fifth straight week of confirmed cases increasing worldwide.
She said the number of reported cases went up in four of the WHO’s six regions, though there were significant variations within each region.
“In the last week, cases have increased by 8% per cent,” Van Kerkhove said. “In Europe, that is 12% – and that’s driven by several countries.” The increase was due in part to the spread of a variant that first emerged in Britain and is now circulating in many other places, including eastern Europe, she said.
Asked about the rising number of cases in Europe, where some states are reimposing tighter restrictions, fearing a third wave of the pandemic, WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said countries had missed an open goal.
He said nations were grasping at straws, thinking that simply administering lots of vaccine doses would be a “golden solution” to end the crisis. “I’m sorry: it’s not,” Ryan said.
EU leaders will meet virtually on Thursday to discuss the Covid crisis, and to consider blocking the export of vaccines out of the block.
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report