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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Is the pandemic over in Germany?

As much of Germany lifts - or prepares to lift - the last remaining Covid-19 measures, intensive care units say Covid-19 admissions are no longer straining the system.

Is the pandemic over in Germany?

Despite a difficult winter of respiratory illnesses, intensive care units in Germany say Covid-19 admissions have almost halved. The number of cases having to be treated in the ICU has gone down to 800 from 1,500 at the beginning of this month.

“Corona is no longer a problem in intensive care units,” Gernot Marx, Vice President of the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine, told the German Editorial Network. “A the moment, we don’t have to think every day about how to still ensure the care of patients, but how to actually run a service that can help.”

Marx said the drop has allowed them to catch up on many postponed surgeries.

The number of sick employees in hospitals is also falling, helping to relieve the pressure on personnel.

The easing pressure on hospitals correlates with the assessment of prominent virologist and head of the Virology department at Berlin’s Charite – Christian Drosten – who said in December that the pandemic was close to ending, with the winter wave being an endemic one.

German federal and state governments are now in the midst of lifting the last of the country’s pandemic-related restrictions. Free Covid-19 antigen tests for most people, with exceptions for medical personnel, recently ended.

READ ALSO: Free Covid-19 tests end in Germany

Six federal states – Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Hessen, Thuringia, Lower Saxony, and Schleswig-Holstein – have ended mandatory isolation periods for people who test positive for Covid-19.

Bavaria, Saxony-Anhalt, and Schleswig-Holstein have ended the requirement to wear FFP2 masks on public transport, while Berlin, Brandenburg, Saxony, Thuringia, and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania will follow suit on February 2nd.

At that time, the federal government will also drop its requirement for masks to be worn on long-distance trains. Labour Minister Hubertus Heil says that’s when he also intends to exempt workplaces – apart from medical locations – from a mask requirement.

READ ALSO: Germany to drop mask mandate in trains and buses from February 2nd

Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg will also end the requirement for patients to wear a mask in doctor’s offices. That’s a requirement that, so far, will stay in place everywhere else. Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has also said that he thinks this requirement should remain. 

But some public health insurers and general practitioners are calling for a nationwide end to the obligation for wearing masks in doctor’s offices.

“The pandemic situation is over,” National Association of Statutory Health Physicians (KBV) Chair Andreas Gassen told the RND network. “High-risk patients aren’t treated in all practices. It should generally be left up to medical colleagues to decide whether they want to require masks in their practices.”