Angela Merkel is facing a rebellion over Germany’s coronavirus lockdown as regional governments move to ease restrictions.
Garden centres, florists and nail parlours are among businesses that will be allowed to reopen in several German states from Monday as regional leaders defied Mrs Merkel’s calls to extend the lockdown.
Clothes shops will be allowed to reopen in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, but customers will have to make an appointment in advance.
The move comes as a new poll released on Friday showed more than half of Germans support easing restrictions. The survey for ZDF television found 56 per cent of Germans now favour easing the lockdown, while only 41 per cent are opposed.
Mrs Merkel is set to hold talks with regional leaders on the lockdown next week. She has repeatedly warned against lifting restrictions over fears Germany could face a third wave caused by new variants on the virus.
But under Germany’s federal system it is regional leaders who have the final say on lockdown, and a clear sign they are no longer prepared to go along with Mrs Merkel’s tough line several pre-empted the talks by announcing their own plans in advance.
Crucially, they include Markus Söder, the Bavarian regional leader who has been Mrs Merkel’s staunchest ally on lockdown.
Mrs Merkel signalled she is ready to compromise in an interview this week, telling Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper: “There cannot be a single plan with exact data straight from the drawing board. We always have to be flexible.”
At the last round of talks in early February Mrs Merkel dashed hopes of early reopening by introducing new infection targets. Just as the weekly national infection rate was nearing the previous target of 50 per 100,000 people she lowered it to 35.
That move has proved deeply unpopular and regional governments are now under pressure to loosen restrictions even though the rate has begun to rise again slightly. Several regional leaders are facing elections this year and say they cannot afford to ignore public opinion.
One of Mrs Merkel’s key allies made the anger among the states clear in unguarded remarks at an online conference this week.
“We are destroying livelihoods. And by the way also the state finances ”, said Volker Bouffier, the regional leader of Hesse, home to Germany’s financial capital Frankfurt.
Losing his temper, Mr Bouffier predicted next week’s talks will be “a mess, wild yapping from the chancellery to Bavaria and back, and in the end the people will be driven insane”.
Mrs Merkel and Jens Spahn, the health minister, are promising to introduce free rapid testing so some restrictions can be eased.
The idea was championed as long ago as last autumn by a controversial mayor who has been one of the German lockdown’s most outspoken critics.
“For weeks all I heard from Berlin was that the rapid tests weren’t approved yet,” Boris Palmer, the mayor of Tübingen said. “I’m not waiting for permission to pick my nose.”