Angela Merkel’s ability to remain the public face of Germany’s coronavirus response was thrown into question after the chancellor quarantined herself at home following contact with a doctor who later tested positive for the disease.
The doctor gave Merkel, 65, a precautionary immunization against bacterial pneumonia on Friday, and the chancellor decided to self-isolate once she learned of his positive test, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Sunday. Merkel — who suffered a health scare last year with unexplained shaking fits — will be regularly tested in coming days and perform her duties from home, Seibert added.
Shortly before the announcement, Merkel spoke at a news conference following consultations with regional leaders. She detailed new restrictions to try to contain the spread of the virus and was asked how she is dealing personally with the situation.
“I’ve canceled almost all appointments where people would have come into the chancellery or where I would have gone to people,” she said. “So my life has also changed fundamentally and consists mainly of telephone and video conferences.”
The chancellor is leading by example as she tries to persuade Germans to take the threat of the virus seriously. While Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is also self-isolating, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and his deputy Pablo Iglesias have both continued to attend cabinet meetings after their partners tested positive.
Before heading into self-imposed isolation, Merkel announced stricter limits on public life agreed with the 16 states, including a ban on gatherings of more than two people and the closing of restaurants and bars except for take-out.
Bavarian Premier Markus Soeder, who runs the CSU sister party of Merkel’s conservative CDU, said Monday he had spoken to the chancellor and that her quarantine is a “precautionary measure.”
“But you can see from this how serious it is and that it can affect any one of us, that there’s no difference between rich and poor, politician and non-politician,” he said in an interview with ZDF television. “It’s a very, very significant issue for all of us and that’s why I’m pleased that all states have recognized that we have to act. It’s the biggest challenge for our people, I think we can say, since World War II.”
Merkel will lead a cabinet meeting Monday via video conference. She has canceled a planned appearance afterward with Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and a speech in parliament Wednesday to brief lawmakers on the virus response.
“It was a short contact” with the doctor, Chancellery Minister Helge Braun said on ARD television late Sunday. “We’re hopeful that the chancellor may not even be infected. But she has decided to set a good example and enter quarantine.”
Merkel initially allowed Health Minister Jens Spahn to take the lead in communicating Germany’s strategy to deal with the virus, but has taken on an increasingly prominent role as the scale of the threat became apparent.
Last week, the trained physicist made the first crisis address on television of her more than 14 years in office, telling the nation to take the virus seriously and winning plaudits for her matter-of-fact approach while she lined up a massive spending plan to shore up the German economy.
Her unrivaled status within the council of European Union leaders may prove critical in the weeks ahead as the bloc seeks to agree on plans to finance the stimulus spending required to limit the economic impact of the virus.
In Germany, her ruling coalition plans to put a supplementary budget worth 150 billion euros ($160 billion) through parliament this week. Monday’s cabinet meeting is due to sign off on the package.
After stepping down as leader of her Christian Democratic Union in late 2018, Merkel had distanced herself from domestic politics and announced that her fourth term, due to end in fall 2021, would be her last.
She appears to have learned from her mistakes during the refugee crisis in 2015, when she was criticized for not communicating the reasons for her decisions.
She now gives regular updates on the government response to the virus, including after her consultations with German regional leaders on Sunday and her video conferences with Group of Seven and EU leaders last week.
(Updates with Merkel’s schedule in ninth paragraph)
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