BERLIN (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday rejected demands for a vote of confidence in her government over a U-turn on a circuit-breaker lockdown over Easter that compounded discontent with her handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Merkel’s decision to ditch plans for an extended Easter holiday to try to break a third wave of COVID-19 agreed two days earlier during talks with governors of Germany’s 16 states raised concerns that she has lost her grip on the crisis.
“No, I will not do that,” said Merkel, when asked about calls by all three opposition parties that she submit a vote of confidence. “I asked people today to forgive me for a mistake. This was the right thing to do, I believe. I also have the support of the whole federal government and parliament.”
Support for Merkel’s conservatives and their centre-left Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners is falling six months before a general election in which both parties are forecast to suffer record-low results.
Germans, who in four successive elections had put their faith in her steady hands to guard their interests during the Greek debt euro zone financial crises, are growing frustrated with her inability to draw a clear path out of the pandemic.
Merkel, who will step down before the general election in September after four terms, agreed early this week to call on citizens to stay at home for five days over Easter.
The measure would have meant all stores, including essential ones, closing for an extra day on April 1.
The plan was welcomed by doctors and hospitals who fear rising infection numbers would stretch intensive care units that have been saving lives for more than a year. It was rejected by business groups who had hoped a lockdown in place since November would translate into a reopening over Easter.
Germany’s struggle to contain a second wave of the coronavirus that has now morphed into a third lies in stark contrast to its successful containment of the first outbreak early last year.
“The idea of an Easter shutdown was drafted with the best of intentions. We urgently need to stop and reverse the third wave,” Merkel told the news conference.
But it was not possible to implement the measures so quickly, Merkel said, apologising for the added uncertainty that it had caused Germans.
“This mistake is mine alone,” said Merkel, setting a contrite tone only the second time in her 12 years as chancellor. “I ask all citizens for forgiveness.”
In 2016, one year before a general election that won her a fourth term, she apologised during a conservative party conference for opening Germany’s doors in 2015 to almost one million migrants, mainly Muslim asylum seekers from Syria.
But Wednesday’s reversal and apology were not enough for some of her closest conservative allies.
Volker Bouffier, governor of the southern state of Hesse, told mass-selling Bild newspaper that the U-turn made the governing conservatives look like “fools.”
Germany, with a population of 83 million, reported 15,813 infections on Wednesday, an increase of some 2,000 from seven days ago, while the death toll rose by 248 to 75,212.
Deaths have fallen from earlier in the year when vaccinations had not begun, but admissions to intensive care units are creeping up and the seven-day incidence of cases per 100,000 – which the government has used as a metric to decide on lockdown steps – stands at 108 compared with 86 a week ago.
Unlike in highly centralised France, Germany’s federal system puts final say on matters of healthcare and security in the hands of state governors which has made it difficult for Merkel to forge uniform measures to contain the virus.
Germans have been largely supportive of lockdowns but a sluggish vaccination campaign, a face mask corruption scandal involving two conservative lawmakers and delays in test kit deliveries have been tearing at their patience.
Business lobby groups, including the HDE retail association, rallied behind Merkel’s decision to scrap the Easter lockdown.
“The chancellor’s courageous decision demonstrates leadership,” said employers’ president Rainer Dulger. “There is no blueprint for managing this crisis.”
“I am convinced that we will beat the virus together,” Merkel said on Wednesday. “The path is difficult and rocky, and it is marked by successes but also by mistakes and setbacks. But the virus will slowly but surely become less scary.”
The left-leaning taz newspaper summed up the tough choices facing Merkel over the next six months with a front page showing the chancellor in a priest gown and a face mask carrying a wooden crucifix over her shoulder in an olive grove.
“Merkel Culpa,” read the headline. “Easter lockdown cancelled. Chancellor shoulders the blame.”
(Additional reporting by Paul Carrel and Madeline Chambers; Writing by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)