BERLIN (Reuters) – Chancellor Angela Merkel banged the podium in frustration as she implored Germans this month to reduce social contacts to curb the spread of COVID-19.
At one point in her unusually passionate address to parliament, during which she was heckled, she brought her hands together as if in prayer. At others, she shook her fist.
“I want to say this: if we have too much contact over Christmas, and afterwards it turns out that that was the last Christmas with the grandparents, then we will have really messed up and we should not mess up!” she said.
Merkel’s rare show of emotion on Dec. 9 was widely seen as a sign of impatience with the difficulties – and now criticism – she faces as she tries to steer Europe’s biggest economy through a second wave of COVID-19.
Merkel, a physicist, won plaudits for her handling of the first wave, when she swiftly locked Germany down and then lifted restrictions sooner than in other countries, easing the economic pain.
But her government has come under fire as COVID-19 cases rise again, even though Germany is still faring better than many other European countries and she is hobbled by a political system built around consensus.
After months of warnings from virologists about a looming surge, Germany began a full-scale lockdown on Wednesday that is due to last until at least Jan. 10.
As shops and schools shut, the death toll jumped by 952, the highest daily increase.
Merkel’s conservative Bavarian ally Markus Soeder says the situation is “out of control” and Der Spiegel magazine referred to her strategy as “The winter failure”.
“The bitter truth is that Germany has to close not solely because of corona but also because of the political handling of corona,” top-selling daily Bild wrote.
Criticism of Merkel, 66, has been compounded by other countries rolling out a COVID-19 vaccine partly developed in Germany but not yet authorised for use there.
Berlin is awaiting regulatory approval from the European Union for the vaccine developed by Germany’s BioNTech and U.S. company Pfizer.
“Germany has lost five weeks with the vaccine. This costs many lives,” said Karl Lauterbach, an epidemiologist and lawmaker with Merkel’s Social Democrat coalition partners.
Health Minister Jens Spahn has been ridiculed for saying in early November it would be hard to explain if a vaccine produced in Germany was used elsewhere first.
“We underestimated this virus,” said Saxony premier Michael Kretschmer, who warned in October against virus “hysteria” but ended up imposing a state-wide lockdown two days before the rest of Germany.
An opinion poll released on Wednesday by the Forsa Institute for Social Research and Statistical Analysis showed 81% of Germans regret the latest measures were not agreed sooner.
Only 42% of people surveyed thought cooperation on the pandemic between central government and Germany’s 16 federal states had been good.
MERKEL DEFENDS STRATEGY
Despite the criticism, polls show that Merkel, who has said she will not seek a fifth term as chancellor, remains Germany’s most popular politician.
Comparisons with other European states during the pandemic are also largely favourable. Germany has reported fewer cases or deaths than France, Britain, Italy or Spain despite having a larger population than all of them.
The latest official figures put the number of coronavirus cases recorded in Germany at 1,379,238 and the death toll at 23,427. France has had over 2 million cases and Britain has recorded nearly 65,000 deaths.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s latest figures put COVID-19 deaths in Germany at 6.9 per 100,000 people over 14 days, compared with 8.3 in France and 8.9 in Britain. That compared with 15.4 in Poland and 23.6 in Hungary.
Merkel has signalled she will not be deterred by criticism, obstacles created by Germany’s consensus-driven politics or by bureaucratic delays.
She can impose coronavirus restrictions only with the approval of the 16 federal state governors, and they have often diluted her proposals, leaving a patchwork of recommendations that are impossible to enforce rather than rules.
But tougher measures became possible after a “lockdown light” in November, which shut bars and restaurants but left schools and shops open, proved less effective than hoped.
“The necessity (for the new lockdown) is due to the fact that the measures we started on Nov. 2 were not enough,” Merkel said on Sunday, announcing the new lockdown and adding “there is an urgent need for action”.
Germany’s success in the first wave has contributed to Merkel’s problems now, political experts say, because it encouraged complacency among people keen to return to work and spurred popular opposition to restrictions.
Court rulings that overturned restrictions from local bar closures to demonstration bans also dampened zeal for political action, and the government faced resistance to tougher lockdown from businesses, despite a 130-billion-euro ($158.26 billion)stimulus package in June.
($1 = 0.8214 euros)
(Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber and Andreas Rinke, Editing by Timothy Heritage)