BERLIN (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned on Friday that the coronavirus pandemic would worsen in coming months, and that life would not return to normal until a vaccine against it had been developed.
Western Europe’s longest serving leader also called on the world to accelerate the fight against global warming, and for Germany and Europe to maintain dialogue with other major powers through difficult times while beating the drum for democracy.
But as Merkel makes preparations to step down before the next national election in October 2021, she made clear that she expects the pandemic to define her last year in office.
Urging citizens not to drop their guard against the virus as Germany’s daily infection rate rises, she told a news conference: “This is a serious matter, as serious as it’s ever been, and you need to carry on taking it seriously.”
Even though Germany would not fully repay debt incurred to fund relief measures offsetting the impact of COVID-19 until 2058, such stimulus was essential as the economy could not be allowed to grind to a halt, she said.
Her government would also work to foster social cohesion in the face of the pandemic, focusing on protecting children and other vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and low-income families, from its effects.
Meanwhile, she said further contracts for COVID-19 vaccines were “in the works” between drug companies and the European Union, whose rotating presidency Germany holds until December.
With none of the many vaccines under development having yet passed through phase III trials, the European Commission this week secured at least 300 million doses of British drug maker AstraZeneca’s potential treatment.
Merkel also said that, with global efforts to combat climate change insufficient, the EU needed to adjust climate goals it has set for 2030, and that she wanted a carbon pricing mechanism for the industry and transport sectors.
It was also important for Europe to keep channels of communication open with China and Russia, even if there were issues on which they disagreed.
She cited tensions over Hong Kong and Belarus, and the suspected poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who is being treated in a Berlin hospital.
Fondly referred to as “Mutti” or Mum in Germany, Merkel has been a dominant figure on the world stage since 2005, helping to steer the EU through the euro zone crisis and opening Germany’s doors to migrants fleeing wars in the Middle East in 2015 – a strategy that still divides the bloc and her country.
Her government has so far also managed the coronavirus crisis better than many of its European counterparts, introducing rigorous testing that has helped keep cases and deaths relatively low.
But, in common with the trend across much of the world, the country’s new daily infections have accelerated in recent weeks.
Merkel and regional leaders agreed on Thursday to keep Germany’s schools open, ban major events until at least the end of the year, and toughen quarantine rules for travellers returning from high-risk countries.
She stressed on Friday she would continue to focus on battling the pandemic, rather than preparing for retirement.
Asked if she had booked her post-chancellorship dream vacation yet, she said: “This is not the time to book such trips. I am fully occupied with the current time.”
Nobody could foresee how the situation would develop in the winter, she said.
“We only know a little bit about the virus… Whenever we know something new we will need to take new measures. It’s going to be an ongoing process.”
(Additional reporting by Thomas Seythal and Tom Sims; editing by John Stonestreet)