German chancellor Merkel urges discipline in long, harsh winter to beat Covid-19 pandemic

Germany is struggling to contain the spread of Covid-19, like many of its neighbours. PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN (BLOOMBERG) - In her last New Year's address as chancellor, Dr Angela Merkel called on Germans to remain disciplined in the fight against the coronavirus.

The German leader - who will step down after elections in September - said perseverance would be needed during a harsh winter as a vaccination campaign ramps up. Amid concerns about its safety, she said she would get the shot as soon as it is her turn.

"These days and weeks - there is nothing to sugar coat - are difficult times for our country," Dr Merkel said in the text of a speech to be broadcast late Thursday (Dec 31). "And so it will continue to be for quite a while."

Germany is struggling to contain the spread of Covid-19, like many of its neighbours. Deaths jumped to a record on Wednesday and intensive care units threaten to become overloaded.

It was a similar situation in other European countries. Spain on Wednesday said 9,860 new coronavirus cases were diagnosed, the highest daily number since the start of the pandemic. Earlier this week, Covid-19 fatalities in the country surpassed 50,000.

Dr Merkel's comments indicate that restrictions to contain the disease will continue beyond Jan 10, when most curbs are currently set to expire. The chancellor will meet with the premiers of Germany's 16 states next week to discuss whether to keep non-essential stores, gyms and restaurants shut for longer.

Even though vaccines will gradually be made available across the population, "the tasks ahead remain gigantic", Dr Merkel said, urging Germans to show the same solidarity and discipline next year that had gotten them through the pandemic so far.

Europe's largest economy has provided relatively generous aid packages to help businesses cushion the blow from lockdown rules. The spending has caused total new borrowing this year and next to balloon to over 300 billion euros (S$488 billion), creating tensions within Dr Merkel's coalition.

The chancellor defended the spending, saying state aid helped ease uncertainty and even existential fears for people such as shop owners, freelancers and artists.

The sombre tone belies a successful close to Germany's European Union presidency. At the tail end of the six-month term, Dr Merkel helped secure backing for the bloc's landmark spending and recovery package, finalised a post-Brexit trade deal with the United Kingdom and completed an investment pact with China.

Her final full year in office was probably her toughest.

"Never in the last 15 years have any of us felt the outgoing year to be so weary," Dr Merkel said.

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