German chancellor Angela Merkel has said an “ultima ratio” of border closures across the EU to contain virus mutations cannot be ruled out unless common rules are reached.
Given Germany has nine land borders with other European countries, more than any other EU member, the chancellor said efforts to contain the spread of the virus must reflect the reality of the bloc as “one epidemiological region”.
Her chief of staff was even clearer, flagging renewed closure of open Schengen-zone borders as “the worst path” – but the logical consequence of not agreeing a more co-ordinated strategy.
“If we want to hold down the mutation spread we have to act in concert,” said Helge Braun, chancellery minister and a medical doctor. “If that succeeds we can get through without tighter travel measures and that is the best path.”
Given the more infectious nature of new mutations, Dr Braun said Berlin’s priority was to avoid them becoming the new majority variant – and risk runaway infections.
Dr Merkel is under pressure domestically, from opposition leaders, rivals in her coalition and even in her own party. This week Germany extended its lockdown measures until mid-February – keeping schools and non-essential services closed for at least another three weeks.
“This pandemic is the disaster of the century. Patience is being put to the test,” said Dr Merkel to journalists in Berlin ahead of Thursday’s virtual European Council meeting.
The chancellor conceded that Germany, after leading the way early on in the pandemic, had delivered a mixed performance in recent weeks on infection and vaccination.
On the one hand, new infections are finally declining to their lowest level since lockdown measures were introduced in November. But the death toll – just over 1,000 daily – is still unacceptably high.
“These are not just numbers, these are people who have died in loneliness, these are people’s fates, these are families who mourn them,” she added.
Germany introduced additional measures this week, including a right to work from home and medical-grade masks in shops and public transport.
“There is still time to prevent the danger inherent in this mutated virus,” she said.
German opposition leaders have all criticised the chancellor’s approach to dealing with the virus.
“Before Christmas a medium-term strategy was promised,” said Dietmar Bartsch, co-leader of the Left Party. “But nothing has happened.”
Others criticised what they saw as efforts by Berlin to push the issue of border closures, without appearing to do so.
“Border closures are not the answer but only complicate the situation in border areas,” said Franziska Brantner of the Green Party to AFP.