Berlin: German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued an urgent warning on pandemic management on Thursday to the new government coming in to succeed her, imploring it to take quick, decisive measures as the country’s total death toll passed 100,000.
Speaking one day after Olaf Scholz presented his new centre-left-led ruling coalition due to take office next month, the outgoing Merkel told reporters that "every day counts" as Germany continues to smash daily coronavirus infection records.
"We need more contact restrictions," Merkel said, adding that she had "today clearly told" Scholz that "we can still manage this transition period together and look at all necessary measures".
Calling Thursday a "sad day" over the grim death toll, Merkel, a trained scientist, said she had sought dialogue with Scholz, a Social Democrat, and the leaders of his coalition partners Greens and the libertarian FDP because of the gravity of the situation. Germany weathered earlier bouts of the pandemic better than many other European countries, but has seen a recent resurgence, with intensive care beds rapidly filling up.
Europe’s largest economy recorded 351 Covid fatalities in the past 24 hours, bringing the official death toll since the start of the pandemic to 100,119. The weekly incidence rate also hit an all-time high of 419.7 new infections per 100,000 people, the Robert Koch Institute health agency said.
The escalating health crisis poses a baptism of fire for the new government. The country has been stuck in political limbo since the September 26 general election, with the popular Merkel governing only in a caretaker capacity.
Her Health Minister Jens Spahn warned this week that most Germans would be "vaccinated, cured or dead" from Covid-19 by winter’s end, as he urged more citizens to get jabbed. The spike in Germany comes as Europe has re-emerged as the pandemic’s epicentre, with the continent battling sluggish vaccine uptake in some nations, the highly contagious Delta variant, colder weather sending people indoors and the easing of restrictions.
An AFP tally of official figures showed on Thursday that more than 1.5 million people have died from Covid-19 in Europe. Scholz began a presentation of his new government’s policy roadmap on Wednesday by announcing new measures to tame the fourth wave.
These included forming a corona response task force based at his office and earmarking one billion euros ($1.12 billion) in bonuses for overstretched health workers on the front lines. Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock told public broadcaster ARD the incoming coalition would take 10 days, until early December, to decide whether "the protective measures go far enough".
However that timetable has already been criticised as far too little and too late. "The latest decisions are like announcing in a flooding catastrophe a plan to hire more swimming teachers and distributing a few water wings and rubber ducks," Sueddeutsche newspaper fumed.
Meanwhile, Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo on Thursday said his country had recorded an uptick in coronavirus cases and hospitalisations far worse than feared, after reimposing tougher Covid rules last week.
The surge exceeded "the most pessimistic curves" drawn last week by experts, he said in a statement. "The latest data gathered show that the... situation has considerably deteriorated," he added, ahead of an urgent meeting Friday to discuss imposing further measures.
Like several other European countries, Belgium is experiencing a stark surge in new coronavirus infections as winter sets in -- despite a relatively successful vaccination campaign. Last week, De Croo’s government announced the reimposition of tougher Covid rules, including mandatory home working for some and compulsory mask-wearing. Not all have welcomed the new restrictions.
Violence broke out Sunday during a 35,000-strong Brussels street protest against the measures. Some of the protesters were opposed to vaccines, others to compulsory health measures they saw as infringements of personal liberty. De Croo and four of his ministers went into quarantine on Monday after French Prime Minister Jean Castex tested positive for Covid-19, a government statement said.
In a related development, French Health Minister Olivier Veran said on Thursday that Covid-19 booster shots would be made available to all adults from this weekend to counter a new wave of infections.
Until now they have only been available to people over 65, health workers or people with health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to Covid. Meantime, Morocco has decided to suspend flights to and from France, where daily coronavirus infections are rising, the foreign ministry said on Thursday.
"This decision will go into effect on November 26 at 23:59 pm (2259 GMT) and until further notice," the ministry said in a statement carried by the official MAP news agency. The number of daily new cases in France has skyrocketed in recent days, hitting a seven-month high of 32,591 on Wednesday.
As last reports came in, scientists in South Africa said they had detected a new Covid-19 variant with a large number of mutations, blaming it for a surge in infection numbers. The number of daily infections in Africa’s hardest-hit country has increased tenfold since the start of the month. "Unfortunately we have detected a new variant which is a reason for concern in South Africa," virologist Tulio de Oliveira told a hastily-called news conference.
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