Germany’s Easter Lockdown Shows Europe Is Running Out of Answers
(Bloomberg) -- Chancellor Angela Merkel ordered a five-day lockdown over Easter in one of Germany’s toughest moves since the start of the pandemic, highlighting the sudden deterioration in Europe’s efforts to contain the coronavirus.
The region’s darkening outlook will be reflected in a joint statement by European Union leaders on Thursday, when they discuss the pandemic, which has taken a turn for the worse because of aggressive Covid-19 strains.
“The epidemiological situation remains serious, also in the light of the challenges posed by variants,” leaders will say, according to the latest draft of their communique seen by Bloomberg. “Restrictions, including as regards non-essential travel, must therefore be upheld for the time being.”
Plans to hold the summit in person were abruptly shelved last week, and the meeting will instead take place by video conference, in a move that encapsulates the worsening situation.
Infections in Belgium -- where EU summits are normally held -- have risen by more than 40% on a weekly basis, according to the latest available data. Germany’s contagion rate has nearly doubled in the past month.
In the radical Easter shutdown of Europe’s largest economy, all shops will be shuttered from April 1 for five days, except for food stores which will open on April 3. Adding next Thursday to Germany’s Easter weekend could end up costing Germany up to 7 billion euros ($8.3 billion) in lost output, according to the Cologne Institute for Economic Research.
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“The delay has a modest impact on our forecasts for 2Q growth. But with the ink still drying on those projections, the risks are already accumulating to the downside.”
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European stocks dropped on Tuesday on fears that the flare up in infections could delay the region’s rebound from the steepest recession in living memory.
A gauge of European leisure and travel stocks has been falling for three consecutive days -- the longest streak since January -- amid concerns that yet another tourist season may be lost, a sharp contrast to last week’s optimism, when the STOXX 600 Travel & Leisure reached record highs.
After more than 11 hours of tense talks that ended early Tuesday, Merkel and state leaders extended Germany’s current lockdown measures until April 18 but failed to reach an agreement on tougher measures such as curfews in hard-hit areas and establish rules for domestic travel.
With officials increasingly at odds with how to proceed, opinion polls suggest the public is becoming more and more disgruntled with the government’s handling of the crisis just six months ahead of September’s national election.
“We are now in a very, very serious situation,” Merkel said at a news conference that started just after 2:30 a.m. in Berlin. “The case numbers are rising exponentially and intensive-care beds are filling up again.”
The situation is even more severe in Hungary, which has run out of doctors and nurses to deal with a record number of Covid-19 patients, forcing hospitals to seek volunteers without any medical training.
Greece, which has lobbied EU leaders heavily to approve a vaccine pass that will ease leisure travel for those inoculated, began drafting private-practice doctors this week, using national security legislation to help its stretched public-health system.
Hospitals are filling up as Europe struggles to ramp up vaccine campaigns. The EU and the U.K. seek to de-escalate a dispute over supplies that could see exports to Britain blocked from AstraZeneca Plc’s plant in the Netherlands. A messy suspension of the shot last week by Germany and other countries added to the confusion.
The EU has administered doses covering 6.6% of the population, less than a third of what the U.K. has managed, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.
The European Commission kept up pressure on AstraZeneca when a senior health official appeared before EU lawmakers on Tuesday. Sandra Gallina said she remained “unhappy” with the company, repeating remarks from Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that the bloc would use all the tools at its disposal to get doses.
“There’s no holiday, there’s no weekend for vaccination,” French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been criticized for a slow rollout, said on Tuesday during a visit to an immunization center in the northern city of Valenciennes, pledging that students, firemen, nurses and retired doctors would be able to give shots.
The bloc’s drugs regulator vowed to continue investigating reports of blood clots after vaccination to ensure safety, Emer Cooke, executive director of the European Medicines Agency, told EU lawmakers on Tuesday. It’s also working to speed up clearance of updated shots to better protect against new variants.
“Vaccines will help us to control this pandemic,” Cooke said. “I want to reassure you and the public that there is a control system in place to ensure that the vaccines that we all receive are safe, efficacious and of high quality.”
What Merkel termed the “third wave” of the pandemic appears to be gathering pace, but she offered few new concrete steps to beyond the Easter lockdown, reiterating instead an urgent appeal for citizens to stay at home.
“We want to avoid our health system becoming overburdened,” she said. “We have managed that throughout this long pandemic journey, and we have to manage that in the coming weeks.”
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