Angela Merkel accepted a gradual unlocking of the anti-Covid system in Germany on Wednesday evening, March 3, yielding to growing discontent in public opinion and within her own government seven months before the parliamentary elections.
After more than nine hours of tough negotiations, the Chancellor and the leaders of the country’s 16 regional states have reached an agreement on a timetable for easing the partial containment measures in place since the end of last year. This anti-Covid device is now only supported by a third of Germans, against two thirds in early January, according to a YouGov poll published this week.
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“Today we can speak of hope and hope”, said the German Chancellor at a press conference, believing that her country was now entering “In a new phase” the fight against the epidemic made possible in particular by the acceleration of vaccinations.
Germany will thus authorize the AstraZeneca vaccine to over 65s, announced the Chancellor. The time between the administration of two doses will also be lengthened, to allow the vaccination of more patients.
Life will however continue to slow down, with most restrictions extended to at least March 28 to counter the rise in cases and the spread of the British variant, which now accounts for 46% of infections.
Massive practice of antigenic tests
Private meetings will however be possible, from March 8, between two homes, provided they do not exceed five people in total. Bookshops, florists and driving schools, which have already reopened in some Länder, will once again be able to welcome visitors across the country.
The Chancellor gave in to the German regions about an incidence threshold of 35 per 100,000 below which future relaxations would be granted. The threshold of 50, less restrictive, was finally retained to pave the way, from the end of March, to reopening in outdoor catering, cultural and sports sectors. On the other hand, severe restrictions will be reintroduced above 100.
However, there is still some way to go to reach the level of 50 in the long term, with the incidence rate rising to 64 on Wednesday, a slight increase in recent days. Only one region, Thuringia (ex-GDR), records a rate greater than 100. But only two have an incidence of less than 50 in a country where the Covid has killed more than 70,000 people.
The government’s strategy of openness also wants to build on the massive practice of antigenic tests, an area in which Germany still lacks efficiency. The government thus promises the availability of these rapid tests, expected shortly on the shelves of drugstores, so that by the beginning of April, the entire population can be tested regularly and free of charge.
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All school and nursery staff, as well as students, will also be offered free antigenic tests every week.
Companies will be involved and will have to offer tests to their employees who go to their workplace, a measure that does not delight professional organizations.
Politicization of the debate
Will these prospects be enough to satisfy everyone, especially the regions least affected by the pandemic? Nothing is less sure. After having accepted the broad restrictions willy-nilly, the population is showing signs of impatience.
Many chain stores and small traders have sounded the alarm bells about the risks of massive corporate bankruptcies. All shops “Non-essential” have been closed since mid-December.
With seven months of legislative elections which will turn the page on the Merkel era, the debates on the strategy to be followed have taken an eminently political turn. And the end of the chancellor’s mandate risks being tarnished by the growing controversy over the failures of anti-epidemic management.
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The opposition but also the Social Democrats, members of the coalition led by the Chancellor, no longer hesitate to let go of their blows. Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz, also a Social Democratic candidate for chancellery, does not lose an opportunity to castigate the ineffectiveness of the vaccination campaign in Germany, where 4.4 million people (5.3% of the population) had received at least one dose of a vaccine on Wednesday.