Merkel Pushes for Tighter Curbs With Vaccine Strategy Under Fire
Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, gestures while addressing the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium. (Photographer: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Bloomberg)

Merkel Pushes for Tighter Curbs With Vaccine Strategy Under Fire

Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeking tighter lockdown restrictions to contain the coronavirus as criticism over Germany’s vaccine rollout sparks feuding in her cabinet.

The chancellery is proposing a limit on how far people can travel from their homes in areas with high infection rates, according to people familiar with the discussions.

The plan has run into opposition from state leaders, who are joining a video conference with Merkel on Tuesday to decide the next steps in fighting the disease, said the people, who asked not to be identified. Officials also have yet to find a consensus on whether to open shuttered schools after the holidays.

The political tensions threaten to escalate amid a rising tide of criticism that the government bungled the rollout of a Covid-19 vaccine. With a national election looming in September, top officials from the Social Democrats -- the junior partner in the ruling coalition -- attacked conservative Health Minister Jens Spahn over apparent delays.

Merkel Pushes for Tighter Curbs With Vaccine Strategy Under Fire

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz -- the SPD’s chancellor candidate -- on Monday presented Spahn with a lengthy list of questions about why vaccinations are not happening faster, Bild newspaper reported. The crisis is set to be discussed at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

Merkel has been drawn into the controversy after Bild published a June letter from Spahn that indicated the German leader was behind the strategy to hand off vaccine procurement to the European Commission.

At Tuesday’s consultations between Merkel and the premiers of Germany’s 16 states, an extension of curbs until at least the end of January is almost certain. Contagion rates remain more than double the level the government has determined to be manageable.

Merkel Pushes for Tighter Curbs With Vaccine Strategy Under Fire

“I must say that today a sharper, clearer and harder lockdown is the only way that we can get the infection numbers down,” Thuringia Premier Bodo Ramelow said in an interview with DLF radio.

His call was echoed by Manuela Schwesig, premier of the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, who said in an ARD television interview that “we have to discuss if contact restrictions need to be tightened.”

Growing concern in Germany and around Europe over diminishing hospital capacity and rapidly rising death rates has already prompted a sharpening of measures in several countries in the region.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte extended a ban on people moving around Italy through mid-January, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson shut England’s schools and ordered people across the country to stay at home.

Europe has become an epicenter of the pandemic since cases began ticking up again in October, with more than 400,000 coronavirus-related deaths and 17.3 million infections. Germany recorded a record 1,122 deaths on Dec. 30 and a further 957 on Tuesday, taking the total above 35,000.

Merkel Pushes for Tighter Curbs With Vaccine Strategy Under Fire

In France, the government is seeking to speed up its vaccination rollout after a slow start. Merkel, meanwhile, is coming under increasing scrutiny over her decision in the summer to task the European Union with negotiating with drug companies, a move critics say slowed down the process and reduced the quantity of jabs available.

Officials in Merkel’s administration have said they are doing all they can to accelerate the production and distribution of vaccines. In addition to the shot jointly developed by Germany’s BioNTech SE, the approval of others by European health authorities should help accelerate the rollout.

According to the latest data from the RKI public health institute, about 266,000 people had been immunized in Germany through Monday, just over 0.3% of the population. That compares with around 1.4% in the U.S. and Britain, which both began vaccinating several weeks earlier.

After initially supporting an alliance with France, Italy and the Netherlands, Spahn has defended Germany’s decision to buy and distribute vaccines simultaneously among EU members. He said it was fairer for the smaller countries that wouldn’t have been able to negotiate on equal terms with manufacturers.

Spahn told ARD television Tuesday that there wouldn’t be any magical solutions overnight. “We have to be realistic,” he said. “This won’t be done quicker than around the summertime in many countries in the world.”

Merkel Pushes for Tighter Curbs With Vaccine Strategy Under Fire

While politicians are looking to pass the blame, parents across Germany are wondering how long their children will have to stay home -- another risk to the region’s struggling recovery.

School closures could cut European labor supply by about 6%, according to Bloomberg Economics. Western European nations, including Germany, are least likely to suffer. Eastern Europe is hardest hit, with countries such as Slovenia and Slovakia losing as much as 10% of their workforce capacity.

The impact on economic output is likely to be more muted though. The EU statistics office says that where schools have shifted toward remote teaching and more homework “it seems reasonable to assume that output is more or less unchanged compared to a normal situation.”

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