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Merkel seeks longer, tighter lockdown in German pandemic setback

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Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed extending and tightening Germany’s lockdown after Covid-19 contagion rates nearly doubled in a month, highlighting Europe’s struggles to contain the pandemic.

The plan would prolong current curbs through April 18 and calls for new measures in hard-hit areas, according to a chancellery draft seen by Bloomberg. Merkel and regional leaders will discuss the proposals on Monday as infections reach levels that would trigger more stringent measures on Europe’s biggest economy.

Just weeks after the chancellor laid out a plan to gradually reopen shops and restaurants, the move would be a blow to pandemic-weary Germans, who opinion polls suggest have become increasingly disgruntled with the government’s handling of the crisis.

Amid sputtering vaccination programs across Europe, lockdowns have been reimposed in Italy and France in the past week. In Austria, the government will meet on Monday with health officials and opposition parties as rising infection rates force it to reconsider plans to ease curbs on parts of the economy.

Europe’s sluggish pace of immunizations has sparked a spat with the U.K. over possibly blocking vaccine exports. The effort was further complicated last week after Germany and other countries temporarily suspended using AstraZeneca Plc’s shot over blood-clotting concerns.

The European Union has administered doses covering 6.4% of the population, less than a third of what the UK has managed, according to Bloomberg’s Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker.

With Easter holidays starting at the end of March, Merkel’s chancellery is proposing mandatory quarantines and Covid tests for travelers returning to Germany, while allowing family visits within the country. A number of proposals haven’t yet been agreed on, indicating tense discussions will be needed to reach a deal.

For hard-hit areas in Germany, other possible curbs include nightly curfews until 5 a.m. and closures of schools and child care if teachers and pupils can’t get tested twice a week.

Cases in Germany are rising again after authorities began to relax restrictions in late February and set out a plan to gradually unwind the remaining curbs — including the partial closing of non-essential stores and the shutdown of hotels, restaurants and gyms, as well as cultural venues.

That plan was dependent on the infection trend, but after the recent jump in cases, officials want to stop further easing measures and roll back some of the previous opening steps.

Revelations that members of Merkel’s conservative bloc profited from the pandemic threatens to hamper implementation of the virus strategy. Questions have also been raised in the media about Health Minister Jens Spahn’s links to face-mask deals, dealing another to blow public trust.

The Robert Koch Institute health agency reported on Monday that the national seven-day rate of infections per 100,000 people rose to 107.3. After dropping to 56.8 on Feb. 19, the figure exceeded the so-called “emergency brake” level of 100 for the second straight day. The provision allows authorities to tighten lockdown measures, and the threshold has been crossed in ten out of 16 states.

The resurgent pandemic has prompted some health experts to warn that intensive care units risk being overwhelmed within a few weeks if the exponential growth in cases continues. On Monday, the number of Covid-19 patients in German ICUs rose to 3,117, the highest in more than a month.

“We expect a drastic increase in the number of patients in the next few weeks,” said Gernot Marx, president of the German organization for intensive and emergency care.

Regional leaders and members of Merkel’s cabinet disagree on what to allow for the upcoming Easter holidays. The premiers of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony want to allow citizens to go on holiday within their own states, while Finance Minister Olaf Scholz warned against a “big wave of travel” that will jeopardize the summer holidays.

“Many people are really corona weary, and we have to take that into account in our decisions,” Stephan Weil, premier of Lower Saxony, said in an interview with ZDF television on Monday. Public acceptance of the restrictions is “a very serious problem because we’re dealing with a really powerful wave while people are feeling demoralized.”

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