Merkel backs tougher COVID lockdown in Germany

BERLIN (Reuters) -Chancellor Angela Merkel supports demands for a short, tough lockdown in Germany to curb the spread of the coronavirus as infection rates are too high, a German government spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

Germany is struggling to tackle a third wave of the pandemic and several regional leaders have called for a short, sharp lockdown while the country tries to vaccinate more people.

“Every call for a short, uniform lockdown is right,” deputy government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer told reporters, adding Germany was seeing a growing number of intensive care patients.

“We need a stable incidence below 100,” she said, referring to the number of cases over seven days per 100,000 inhabitants. It is currently 110.1, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases.

She also said the government was looking at whether nationwide, rather than regional, measures were needed.

“The range of regulations does not help acceptance,” said Demmer. While some states have imposed night-time curfews over Easter, others are experimenting with some easing of restrictions.

Merkel pressed regional leaders on March 28 to step up efforts to curb rapidly rising coronavirus infections, adding a thinly veiled threat that she would otherwise have to consider what steps could be taken on a nationwide basis.

One option would be to amend the Infection Protection Act to stipulate what should happen under certain scenarios and which could enable the federal government to enforce a nationwide lockdown without getting approval of the 16 state premiers.

Demmer said the government was still looking into this option, but that no final decision had been taken yet.

Bild newspaper reported that conservative lawmakers were currently working on a draft law to give the federal government more powers to get the third wave under control.

The majority of Germany’s federal state premiers was against bringing forward talks scheduled for April 12 on what action to take.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany rose by 9,677 on Wednesday to more than 2.9 million, the Robert Koch Institute said. It has warned that the numbers may not yet show the full picture as not all cases were registered over Easter. Some 77,401 people have died.

(Reporting by Andreas Rinke and Michael Nienaber; Writing Madeline Chambers; Editing by Maria Sheahan, Kirsti Knolle)

Merkel appeals to Germans to stay home for Easter to stem pandemic third wave

By Emma Thomasson

BERLIN (Reuters) -Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to Germans on Thursday to stay at home over Easter and meet fewer people to help curb a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, as the capital Berlin announced a nighttime ban on gatherings from Friday.

“It should be a quiet Easter, with those closest to you, with very reduced contact. I urge you to refrain from all non-essential travel,” Merkel said in a video message, adding this was the only way to help doctors and nurses fight the virus.

Merkel was accused of losing her grip on the COVID-19 crisis last week after she ditched plans for an extended Easter holiday agreed two days earlier with governors of Germany’s 16 states.

She has since tried to shift the blame for the third wave of the pandemic onto state premiers, accusing them of failing to stick to earlier agreements to reimpose restrictions if infections rose.

On Thursday, the city government of Berlin said it will impose a nighttime ban on gatherings from Friday and only allow children of essential workers to attend nursery from next week.

As the weather has turned warm in recent days, Berliners have been flocking to public spaces. About a hundred youngsters threw bottles and stones at police in one park on Wednesday when they tried to break up the party, the Berliner Zeitung reported.

Merkel said it was no longer the elderly who were fighting for their lives in the pandemic, but the middle-aged and even younger patients who were ending up on ventilators in hospital.

She held out hope, however, that the sluggish distribution of vaccinations would speed up after Easter, when family doctors will start giving shots.

Christian Karagiannidis, the scientific head of the DIVI association for intensive and emergency medicine, said Germany needs a two-week lockdown, faster vaccinations and compulsory tests at schools if hospitals are not to be overwhelmed.

“If this rate continues, we will reach the regular capacity limit in less than four weeks,” he told the Rheinische Post daily. “We are not over-exaggerating. Our warnings are driven by the figures.”

The Berlin city government said people would only be allowed to be outside on their own or with one other person from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m., though children under 14 are exempted.

This will be the first limited curfew imposed in Berlin since the pandemic began a year ago. The city of Hamburg already announced on Wednesday it will restrict nighttime outings from Friday, with supermarkets and takeaways shut from 9 p.m.

Unlike Britain and France, Germany’s 16 states, which run their own healthcare and security affairs, have been reluctant to impose drastic limits on movement out of fear of further damaging the economy, as well as an aversion to far-reaching restrictions on freedoms in a country wary of its Nazi past.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany, Europe’s most populous country and largest economy, rose 24,300 to 2.833 million on Thursday, the biggest daily increase since Jan. 14. The reported death toll rose by 201 to 76,543.

(Reporting by Emma Thomasson, editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)

German COVID-19 cases are growing exponentially again: RKI

BERLIN (Reuters) – Coronavirus infections are rising exponentially in Germany, an expert at the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases said on Tuesday, putting at risk plans to lift the lockdown and revive the economy.

The number of cases per 100,000 reported on Tuesday was 83.7, up from 68 a week ago, and the RKI has said that metric could reach 200 by the middle of next month.

Germany is definitely in a third wave of the pandemic, driven by the fact it has loosened restrictions in recent weeks just as a more transmissible variant has spread, Dirk Brockmann, an epidemiologist at the RKI, told Germany’s ARD television.

“It has been totally irrational to loosen up here. It is just fueling this exponential growth,” he said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders agreed a phased easing of curbs earlier this month along with an “emergency brake” to let authorities reimpose restrictions if case numbers rise above 100 per 100,000 on three consecutive days.

They are due to meet again on March 22 to discuss whether to allow any further relaxation of the rules.

The state government in the city of Berlin decided on Tuesday to put on hold any more easing, such as allowing restaurants or cinemas to open, the Tagesspiegel newspaper reported.

VACCINATION WOES

Germany’s decision on Monday to suspend AstraZeneca’s vaccine could delay progress in reaching herd immunity and postpone an economic recovery in the second quarter, analysts said.

The decision follows seven cases of thrombosis in Germany, including three deaths, and delivers a major setback to the country’s drive to speed up its sluggish vaccination campaign.

A planned meeting between Merkel and state leaders on Wednesday to discuss using family doctors to administer COVID-19 vaccines has been postponed until after the European Medicines Agency completes its review into the AstraZeneca shot.

AstraZeneca has said an analysis of its safety data covering reported cases from over 17 million vaccine doses given had shown no evidence of an increased risk of pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis or low levels of platelets.

The RKI’s Brockmann noted that 1,000 people in a million had died of COVID-19, compared to possibly 1 in a million from complications associated with the vaccine.

“In the risk groups, the risk of dying of COVID is much, much higher. That means it is probably 100,000 times more likely to die of COVID than because of an AstraZeneca vaccine,” he said.

(Reporting by Emma Thomasson and Caroline Copley, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones)

Merkel tells Rouhani Iran should return to nuclear deal

BERLIN (Reuters) – Iran should send positive signals to increase the chances of a return to the 2015 nuclear deal and defuse a standoff with western powers, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told President Hassan Rouhani in a phone call on Wednesday.

Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said the German leader told Rouhani she was concerned that Iran was continuing to breach its commitments under the deal, which U.S. President Joe Biden wants to restore should Iran halt nuclear activities.

(Reporting by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Madeline Chambers)

Germany extends lockdown until March 7

By Sabine Siebold and Andreas Rinke

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany will extend restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus until March 7, though schools and hair salons may open sooner, Chancellor Angela Merkel and leaders of the 16 federal states agreed on Wednesday.

The number of new daily infections in Germany has been falling, prompting some regional leaders to push for a timetable to ease the lockdown, but concerns are growing about the impact of more infectious variants of the virus on case numbers.

“We know that these mutants are a reality now, and with that it (the infection rate) will increase. The question is how quickly it will increase,” Merkel told journalists in a news conference.

Under the agreement, some exceptions will be made to a strict lockdown which has been in place since mid-December.

Hairdressers will be allowed to reopen from March 1 and individual states can decide on how to re-start school classes. Merkel, who has adopted a cautious approach throughout the pandemic, has said nurseries and primary schools take priority.

The rest of the economy can start to re-open gradually where the spread of the virus drops to no more than 35 new cases per 100,000 people over seven days.

On Wednesday, that number was 68, having fallen from a high near 200 in late December. It was last below 50 in October.

BUSINESS ANGST

Some business and industry associations have pushed for an easing of the restrictions as soon as possible, citing the damage inflicted on Europe’s biggest economy, which shrank by 5% last year.

“The situation is serious,” the BDI industry and BDA employers groups said. “We urgently call for an easing plan.”

However, the Ifo economic think-tank said a lockdown extension until mid-March was bearable and that a swifter easing that triggered a surge in cases could create greater damage.

Germany reported 8,072 new cases on Wednesday and a further 813 deaths, bringing the total death toll to 62,969.

(Writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Maria Sheahan, Gareth Jones and Cynthia Osterman)

Record daily German COVID deaths spark Merkel ‘mega-lockdown’ plan: Bild

By Andreas Rinke and Caroline Copley

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany recorded a new record number of deaths from the coronavirus on Thursday, prompting calls for an even tighter lockdown after the country emerged relatively unscathed in 2020.

Chancellor Angela Merkel wanted a “mega-lockdown,” mass-selling newspaper Bild reported, shutting down the country almost completely for fear of fast-spreading variant of the virus first detected in Britain.

She was considering measures including shutting down both local and long-distance public transport, though such steps had not yet been decided, Bild reported.

While Germany’s total deaths per capita since the pandemic began remain far lower than the United States, its daily per capita mortality since mid-December has often exceeded that of the United States.

Germany’s daily death toll currently equates to about 15 deaths per million people, versus a 13 U.S. deaths per million.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported 25,164 new coronavirus cases and 1,244 fatalities, bringing Germany’s total death toll since the start of the pandemic to 43,881.

Germany initially managed the pandemic better than its neighbors with a strict lockdown last spring, but it has seen a sharp rise in cases and deaths in recent months, with the RKI saying people were not taking the virus seriously enough.

RKI president Lothar Wieler said on Thursday restrictions were not being implemented as consistently as they were during the first wave and said more people should work from home, adding that the current lockdown needed to be tightened further.

Germany introduced a partial lockdown in November that kept shops and schools open, but it tightened the rules in mid-December, closing non-essential stores, and children have not returned to classrooms since the Christmas holidays.

Hospitals in 10 out of Germany’s 16 states were facing bottlenecks as 85% of intensive care unit beds were occupied by coronavirus patients, Wieler said.

A meeting of regional leaders planned for Jan. 25 to discuss whether to extend the lockdown into February should be brought forward, said Winfried Kretschmann, the premier of the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

Merkel was due to speak to ministers on Thursday about ramping up production of vaccines.

So far only about 1% of the German population has been vaccinated, or 842,455 people, the RKI reported.

Germany has so far recorded 16 cases of people with the fast-spreading strain of the virus first detected in Britain and four with the strain from South Africa, Wieler said, although he admitted gene sequencing of samples was not being done broadly.

Wieler urged people who were offered a COVID-19 vaccination to accept it.

“At the end of the year we will have this pandemic under control,” Wieler said. Enough vaccines would then be available to inoculate the entire population, he said.

(Reporting by Kirsti Knolle and Thomas Escritt, Writing by Caroline Copley and Emma Thomasson, Editing by Riham Alkousaa, Angus MacSwan, William Maclean and Nick Macfie)

Captains of German industry to accompany Merkel on Trump trip

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel briefs the media during a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium March 9, 2017.

By Georgina Prodhan

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Bosses of German companies including engineering group Siemens and car maker BMW  will travel with Chancellor Angela Merkel to meet U.S. President Donald Trump this week, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Faced with Trump’s “America First” policy and threats to impose tariffs on imported goods, the captains of industry will stress how many U.S. jobs are tied to “Deutschland AG”.

Trains-to-turbines group Siemens employs more than 50,000 people in the United States, its single biggest market, where it makes 21 percent of its total revenue, while BMW’s South Carolina plant is its largest factory anywhere in the world.

Trump will meet Merkel, Europe’s longest-serving leader, for the first time on Tuesday in Washington.

Merkel told business leaders in Munich on Monday that free trade was important for both countries, while a German government spokesman confirmed at a press conference that the two leaders would also meet with German business executives.

German chancellors have a long tradition of taking groups of business leaders along with them on trips to important countries. The other business leader accompanying Merkel will be the chief executive of ball-bearings maker Schaeffler.

The three chief executives will cross the Atlantic for a single scheduled meeting of less than an hour with Trump. They will brief the president on the German practice of training workers on the job while also sending them to classes at a vocational school to obtain formal qualifications.

Such training is traditionally offered by large German companies both at home and in their foreign operations, and is particularly prized in emerging economies, where it helps German corporations win business.

Sources of tension between Berlin and the new U.S. administration include an accusation by a senior Trump adviser that Germany profits unfairly from a weak euro, and Trump’s threat to impose 35 percent tariffs on imported vehicles.

The United States is Germany’s biggest trading partner, buying German goods and services worth 107 billion euros ($114 billion) last year while exporting just 58 billion euros’ worth in return.

“The accusations of President Donald Trump and his advisers are plucked out of thin air,” the president of Germany’s VDMA engineering industry association, Carl Martin Welcker, said in a statement on Monday.

He said 81,000 people were employed in German-owned engineering firms in the United States with almost 30 billion euros in total revenue, while German export successes were linked to the high quality of goods, not foreign-exchange effects.

As part of a bid to bring jobs to America, Trump has urged carmakers to build more cars in the United States and discouraged them from investing in Mexico, where German and other carmakers have big plants.

Trump’s order banning citizens of some majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States, and a threat to tear up the NAFTA free trade deal between the United States, Mexico and Canada, have also unnerved business leaders.

Siemens chief executive Joe Kaeser expressed concern last month about developments in the United States since Trump took office, saying: “The new American president has a style that’s different from what we’re accustomed to. It worries us, what we see.”

BMW’s Chief Executive Harald Krueger said last week that introducing protectionist measures and tariffs would not be good for the United States.

The carmaker is expanding its plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to have a capacity of 450,000 vehicles, with 70 percent for export.

It is also building a new plant in Mexico, where it plans to invest $2.2 billion by 2019. Mexico’s lower labor costs and unique free trade position mean it now accounts for a fifth of all vehicle production in North America.

“America profits from free trade. We are supporters of free trade and not of protectionism,” Krueger told reporters at the Geneva auto show.

(Additional reporting by Irene Preisinger in Munich, Erik Kirschbaum, Andreas Cremer and Andreas Rinke in Berlin, and Edward Taylor in Frankfurt; Editing by Catherine Evans and Susan Fenton)

Merkel wants Germany to get refugees into workforce faster

Refugees show their skills in metal processing works during a media tour at a workshop for refugees organized by German industrial group Siemens in Berlin, Germany,

By Georgina Prodhan and Andreas Rinke

FRANKFURT/BERLIN (Reuters) – Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday that Germany needed “viable solutions” to integrate refugees into the workforce faster after she met blue-chip companies that have hired just over 100 refugees since around a million arrived last year.

Merkel, her popularity undermined by her open-door policy, summoned the bosses of some of Germany’s biggest companies to Berlin on Wednesday to account for their lack of action and exchange ideas about how they can do better.

Many of the companies contend that a lack of German-language skills, the inability of most refugees to prove any qualifications and uncertainty about their permission to stay in the country mean there is little they can do in the short term.

Merkel told rbb-inforadio that if needed, special provisions could be developed to speed up the integration of refugees into the workforce, but she acknowledged this would still take time.

“Many are in integration courses or waiting to get on them. So I think we will need to show some patience, but must be ready at any time to develop viable solutions,” she said.

A participant at the meeting with Merkel said company executives from DAX firms and small businesses discussed their opinions for 2-1/2 hours and came to the conclusion: “We want to do this”. When talking about the refugee influx, Merkel frequently says: “Wir schaffen das” or “we can do this”.

The meeting spurred some firms to announce more action to help get refugees into the workforce.

Deutsche Bahn [DBN.UL] boss Ruediger Grube said IT would offer 150 extra places in qualification programs for refugees, Volkswagen said it was working with Kiron, a non-profit start-up, to help refugees start a university degree, Thyssenkrupp announced around 150 extra training positions and Daimler announced 50, the source said.

“Wir Zusammen” or “We Together”, an integration initiative of German companies, said much had been achieved to support the arrival of the newcomers but now they had to turn their attention to integrating them into the workforce.

“Now it’s about motivating those companies that are not yet active,” it said in a statement after the summit.

A survey by Reuters of the 30 companies in Germany’s stock index last week found they could point to just 63 refugee hires in total.

Of those, 50 were employed by Deutsche Post DH, which said it applied a “pragmatic approach” and deployed the refugees to sort and deliver letters and parcels.

“Given that around 80 percent of asylum seekers are not highly qualified and may not yet have a high level of German proficiency, we have primarily offered jobs that do not require technical skills or a considerable amount of interaction in German,” a company spokesman said by email.

Deutsche Post’s Chief Executive Frank Appel said on Wednesday the company had now hired more refugees, taking its total to 102.

Several of the 27 firms who responded said they considered it discriminatory to ask about applicants’ migration history, so they did not know whether they employed refugees or how many.

What is clear is that early optimism that the wave of migrants might boost economic growth and help ease a skills shortage in Germany – where the working-age population is projected to shrink by 6 million people by 2030 – is evaporating.

“The employment of refugees is no solution for the skills shortage,” industrial group Thyssenkrupp’s Chief Executive Heinrich Hiesinger said earlier this month.

APPRENTICESHIP BARRIERS

Most large German companies, especially those in manufacturing, prefer to hire through structured apprenticeship programs, in which they train young people for up to four years for highly skilled and sometimes company-specific jobs.

But the recent arrivals from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are mainly ill-prepared for such training, they say.

The DAX-listed companies surveyed by Reuters were able to identify about 200 apprentices in this or last year’s intake. Many will have been through months of pre-training especially designed for migrants by large companies, such as engineering group Siemens, Mercedes maker Daimler, or automotive technology firm Continental.

Two Syrian interns visited by Reuters at a Siemens power-plant construction site in April applied for apprenticeships, but could not immediately be accepted because they are still in the process of proving their school-leaving qualifications. One is meantime doing temporary work in IT and the other taking German classes.

It is simply too soon to expect large numbers of refugees to have been hired yet, most German companies say.

“Our experience is that it takes a minimum of 18 months for a well-trained refugee to go through the asylum procedure and learn German at an adequate level in order to apply for a job,” said a spokeswoman for Deutsche Telekom.

(Additional reporting by Caroline Copley, Michelle Martin, Paul Carrel, Andreas Rinke and Markus Wacket in Berlin, Jan Schwartz in Hamburg, Matthias Inverardi in Duesseldorf and Harro ten Wolde, Ludwig Burger, Edward Taylor and Tina Bellon in Frankfurt; editing by Ralph Boulton)

Putin to hold high level meetings including talks with Erdogan

Russian President Putin shakes hands with Turkish President Erdogan during news conference following their meeting in St. Petersburg

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian leader Vladimir Putin will hold a number of high-level bilateral meetings on the sidelines of Sept. 4-5 summit in Hangzhou, China, a Kremlin aide told reporters on Tuesday.

Putin will hold talks with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Sept. 3 as the “process of normalization of relations between the two countries is under way”, Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov said.

After the Russian jet was shot down in November last year near the Syrian-Turkish border, Russia imposed trade restrictions on Ankara. However, the relations started to thaw after conciliatory moves from Ankara in July.

Both already met earlier this month in St Petersburg

On Sept.4, Putin will discuss a need for “a new impetus in bilateral relations” with British Prime Minister Theresa May and he will also meet Saudi Arabia’s powerful deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss Syrian crisis.

Ushakov also said that a previously agreed trilateral meeting of leaders from Russia, Germany and France, who were poised to discuss Ukraine’s crisis, will not take place.

Instead, Putin will meet separately with French President Francois Hollande on Sept.4 – though the date is still being discussed – and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sept. 5.

Ushakov said that the meeting was called off due to a rising tension over Crimea peninsula.

Putin is also due to talk to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Sept 5.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin)

Germany has curbed open-door policy for migrants

German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a news conference in Berlin, Germany

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany appears to have drastically curtailed its open-door policy for migrants in 2016, turning away 13,000 people without valid documentation in the first six months, already 4,000 more than in the whole of 2015, official data showed on Tuesday.

Around 117,500 migrants were admitted in the same period, compared to a record of more than one million migrants entering the country last year, mainly across the border from Austria.

The bulk of the rejections happened at land entry points and Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis made up the three largest groups of the total, the Interior Ministry data published at the request of the hard-left Die Linke party showed.

Chancellor Angela Merkel last month interrupted her summer break to defend her government’s migration policy after two Islamist attacks by asylum seekers, saying that those fleeing conflicts and persecution have the right to asylum in Germany.

More than 2,500 Afghans, 1,300 Syrians and 1,000 Iraqis were declined entry at border crossings in the January-June period, the ministry said. Iranians, Moroccans, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Gambians, Somalis and Algerians made up the rest of the top 10.

The number of people seeking asylum in Germany dropped drastically this year as a result of border closures in the Balkans, an EU-Turkey deal to stop sea arrivals in Greece and tougher asylum rules in Germany.

In July, 4,500 migrants arrived in Germany, less than half of the daily arrivals at the peak of the crisis in the fall of last year, German police said earlier this month, bringing the number of arrivals in the first seven months of the year to 122,000.

Migrants who arrive in Germany are first registered at reception centres where they have to wait for months before they can officially file an asylum application, creating a huge backlog and putting strain on civil servants.

The influx has dented the popularity of Merkel’s ruling conservatives and prompted the rise of an anti-immigration party.

Turkey has threatened to suspend its migrants agreement with the European Union if there is no deal to grant visa-free travel to Turks. The number of migrants reach Italy in boats from Libya has also been rising.

(Reporting by Andreas Rinke; Writing by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)