By Holger Hansen
BERLIN, March 24 (Reuters) – Chancellor Angela Merkel ditched a plan agreed on Tuesday for an extended Easter holiday to try to break a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, apologising to lockdown-weary Germans after the hastily-conceived plan triggered a backlash.
At talks that ran into the early hours of Tuesday, Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states had agreed to call on citizens to stay at home for five days over the Easter holidays, declaring April 1 and April 3 as extra “rest days”.
The measure would have meant all stores, including essential ones, closing for an extra day. It was met by harsh criticism, with businesses lamenting more shutdowns and medical experts saying the new measures were not tough enough to prevent the exponential spread of more infectious variants of the virus.
“The idea of an Easter shutdown was drafted with the best of intentions. We urgently need to stop and reverse the third wave of the pandemic,” Merkel told reporters on Wednesday.
But it was not possible to implement the measures so quickly, Merkel said. She apologised for added uncertainty that it had raised for Germans.
“This mistake is mine alone,” she said.
Her comments came against a backdrop of growing public frustration with the conservative-led government over the slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and extended lockdown measures.
“No plan, no clue, no courage,” ran a headline in the online edition of the mass-selling Bild daily above a picture of Merkel and two state leaders.
The HDE association of retailers welcomed Merkel’s announcement on Wednesday, saying that closing stores for an extra day ahead of Easter would have led to logistical problems and prompted shoppers to rush to stock up earlier.
“With today’s decision, a bit of reason is returning to coronavirus policy,” HDE president Stefan Genth said.
Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who is also vice-chancellor, said Merkel made the right decision to reverse plans for a stricter lockdown over Easter but he said the government had to avoid similar mishaps in coming weeks or risk further eroding confidence.
“We have to make sure that such a mistake won’t be repeated, we have to prepare such decisions well and in a better way in the future,” he told reporters on Wednesday.
Christian Lindner, head of the opposition pro-business Free Democrats, called on Merkel to ask parliament for a vote of confidence, saying on Twitter: “The Chancellor can no longer be certain of her coalition’s full support.”
A poll released on Wednesday showed public support for Merkel’s conservatives slumping to its lowest in over a year ahead of a national election in September. Merkel, who has led Germany since 2005, has said she will not stand for a fifth term.
The CDU suffered historic defeats in two state elections this month, hit by public frustration over the slow vaccine rollout and the extended lockdown measures, as well as a scandal over the procurement of face masks.
The conservative bloc has yet to settle on a chancellor candidate, and is already missing the “Merkel bonus” she has brought them with four consecutive national election victories.
Germany, with a total population of 83 million, reported another 15,813 infections on Wednesday, bringing the total to 2,690,523, while the death toll rose by 248 to 75,212.
The number of cases per 100,000 in the last seven days, which the government has used as a key metric to decide on lockdown steps, was stable at 108.
“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.” (Reporting by Holger Hansen, Andreas Rinke, Paul Carrel, Thomas Escritt, Michael Nienaber; Paul Carrel and Maria Sheahan; Editing by Gareth Jones, Emma Thomasson and Angus MacSwan)