EXPLAINED: What prompted Merkel to make a sudden U-turn on Easter shutdown in Germany?

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement to the press on Wednesday that she was cancelling the Easter shutdown resolved some questions, but left others wide open. Here's what we know, and what we still don’t.

EXPLAINED: What prompted Merkel to make a sudden U-turn on Easter shutdown in Germany?
A church in Bamberg, Bavaria. dpa | Nicolas Armer

Speaking just after midday Merkel made a dramatic announcement. She called the decision to go into Germany’s toughest lockdown yet, by closing down the economy over the five days of Easter, “a mistake.”

It was made with the best of intentions but was not implementable in the short time available, she said.

READ ALSO: Merkel admits Easter coronavirus shutdown plan her ‘mistake alone’

Why did she perform this U-turn?

The decision to turn Maundy Thursday and Easter Saturday into one-off “days of rest” had caused huge amounts of confusion. The term Merkel used, Ruhetag (day of rest), does not have a clear legal definition. 

Employers were left scratching their heads over whether Merkel meant that the two days were to become one-off public holidays. That would have had important implications. Businesses would have had to pay workers to stay at home.

But to enforce this, the German states would have first had to create new laws anchoring these two days as public holidays.

There was also concern over how supplies chains could be altered at such short notice.

Given the very limited time to make these arrangements, Merkel decided that the plan was a mistake and dropped the label Ruhetag.

That means people will be expected to work on Thursday and Saturday as normal. Shops will also be able to stay open on those two days.

What about church services?

There was also considerable anger on Tuesday over the decision to discourage church attendance on the most important weekend in the Christian calendar.

“It has amazed me that parties with the C (for Christian) in their name, of all things, are suggesting that churches refrain from holding services, even more so at Easter,” Interior Minister Seehofer told Bild newspaper.

Merkel did not specifically address church services in her press conference on Wednesday.

But the government also seems to be stepping back from its insistence on moving church services online.

Merkel’s deputy spokesperson Ulrike Demmer assured worshippers on Wednesday afternoon that the government was “looking for solutions” and was already in discussions with representatives of the Catholic and Protestant churches.

Church leaders had said that they wanted to have worshippers inside churches on Easter Sunday.

The state of Saxony has already made clear that it will not stand in the way of churches that want to hold church services with worshipers in attendance.

Contact restrictions

The government published an update on its website on Wednesday afternoon stating that “as before, private meetings are only possible during this time [Easter] with a maximum of 5 people from two households, plus children up to 14 years of age.”

At first glance this doesn’t change anything. At the same time there is no longer a reference to a “ban on gathering” in public spaces. This rule already created some confusion, as it was vague about what exactly constitutes a gathering.

On Monday, Merkel said that over the five days of Easter people should stay at home.

As Merkel made no specific mention of small gatherings on Wednesday, it remains unclear whether the government wants people to be able to sit outside. This is likely to be specified in the coming days when each individual state lays out its own plans.

Bavarian leader Markus Söder said on Wednesday that the U-turn “only means one things in Bavaria: Thursday and Saturday are no longer days of rest.”

READ MORE: Merkel admits Easter coronavirus shutdown plan her ‘mistake alone’

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Could there be a new wave of Covid-19 in Germany this autumn?

It’s back again: amid sinking temperatures, the incidence of Covid-19 has been slowly rising in Germany. But is this enough to merit worrying about the virus?

Could there be a new wave of Covid-19 in Germany this autumn?

More people donning face masks in supermarkets, friends cancelling plans last minute due to getting sick with Covid-19. We might have seen some of those familiar reminders recently that the coronavirus is still around, but could there really be a resurgence of the virus like we experienced during the pandemic years?

According to virologists, the answer seems to be ‘maybe’: since July, the number of people newly infected with Covid-19 has been slowly rising from a very low level.

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), nine people per 100,000 inhabitants became newly infected in Germany last week. A year ago, there were only around 270 reported cases.

Various Corona variants are currently on the loose in the country. According to the RKI,  the EG.5 (also called Eris) and XBB.1.16 lines were each detected in the week ending September 3rd with a share of just under 23 percent. 

The highly mutated variant BA.2.86 (Pirola), which is currently under observation by the World Health Organisation (WHO), also arrived in the country this week, according to RKI. 

High number of unreported case

The RKI epidemiologists also warned about a high number of unreported cases since hardly any testing is done. They pointed out that almost half of all registered sewage treatment plants report an increasing viral load in wastewater tests.

The number of hospital admissions has also increased slightly, but are still a far cry from the occupation rate amid the pandemic. Last week it was two per 100,000 inhabitants. In the intensive care units, only 1.2 percent of all beds are occupied by Covid-19 patients.

Still, a good three-quarters (76.4 percent) of people in Germany have been vaccinated at least twice and thus have basic immunity, reported RKI. 

Since Monday, doctors’ offices have been vaccinating with the adapted vaccine from Biontech/Pfizer, available to anyone over 12 years old, with a vaccine for small children set to be released the following week and one for those between 5 and 11 to come out October 2nd.

But Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has so far only recommended that people over 60 and those with pre-existing conditions get vaccinated.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Who should get a Covid jab this autumn in Germany?

“The pandemic is over, the virus remains,” he said. “We cannot predict the course of coming waves of corona, but it is clear that older people and people with pre-existing conditions remain at higher risk of becoming severely ill from Covid-19”

The RKI also recommended that people with a cold voluntarily wear a mask. Anyone exhibiting cough, cold, sore throat or other symptoms of a respiratory illness should voluntarily stay at home for three to five days and take regular corona self-tests. 

However, further measures such as contact restrictions are not necessary, he said.

One of many diseases

As of this autumn, Covid-19 could be one of many respiratory diseases. As with influenza, there are no longer absolute infection figures for coronavirus.

Saarbrücken pharmacist Thorsten Lehr told German broadcaster ZDF that self-protection through vaccinations, wearing a mask and getting tested when symptoms appear are prerequisites for surviving the Covid autumn well. 

Only a new, more aggressive mutation could completely turn the game around, he added.

On April 7th of this year, Germany removed the last of its over two-year long coronavirus restrictions, including mask-wearing in some public places.

READ ALSO: German doctors recommend Covid-19 self-tests amid new variant