BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany said on Monday its decision to impose border controls with the Czech Republic and Austria is a temporary measure of last resort and it defended a lockdown extension against business demands for a roadmap to reopening.
The new restrictions along the normally open borders were prompted by alarm over outbreaks in the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol region of strains of the coronavirus that spread faster and cause more illness.
Germany installed frontier checks on Sunday, drawing protest from Austria and concerns about supply-chain disruptions that could damage the country’s export-oriented manufacturing sector.
“We have a situation in which we had to take all the necessary steps to prevent the virus variants…spreading as quickly in Germany as they are doing unfortunately in neighbouring countries,” Steffen Seibert, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief spokesman, told a news conference.
“A return to normal is in the interest of everyone involved,” he said. National borders within the European Union’s Schengen zone are normally open to ease trade and travel within its single market.
Austria has said the border controls are “disproportionate” and “unacceptable” and invited the German ambassador to the foreign ministry in Vienna to discuss the situation.
German police at the Czech and Austrian frontiers have been allowing in only truck drivers, German citizens and cross-border commuters in possession of negative COVID-19 test certificates.
Czech broadcasters aired footage of long lines of trucks stretching several kilometres (miles) on three major highways to Germany, with drivers waiting two to two-and-a-half hours.
Many German manufacturers, especially carmakers, rely on parts produced in eastern Europe and there have been fears that strict controls could crimp production.
BMW, Volkswagen and Audi said on Monday that the new border regiment has not affected car output so far.
Germany has extended until March 7 a lockdown introduced in December that shut all shops and non-essential businesses. The measures have contributed to a drop in daily infections and eased pressure on intensive care units in hospitals.
But outbreaks in neighbouring countries, including France, of more contagious virus variants from Brazil and South Africa threaten to undo those gains.
Yet, as coronavirus vaccine roll-outs gather pace across Europe, business pressure to reopen economies is growing.
Germany’s retail association HDE, which will on Tuesday hold emergency talks with the economy ministry, urged the government to lay out a clear plan that allow retailers to open.
Merkel said on Friday that once a 7-day coronavirus incidence of under 35 per 100,000 people is reached, further relaxations would be possible, allowing a gradual return to broadly normal conditions.
“Politicians must deliver what they have promised long ago: a plan based on fair and transparent criteria for an exit from lockdown,” said HDE chief Stefan Genth.
(Reporting by Thomas Seythal in Berlin, Jan Schwartz in Hamburg, Francois Murphy in Vienna and Jason Hovet in Prague; writing by Joseph Nasr; editing by Mark Heinrich)