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German finance chief says Covid surge shows now is not the time to reopen economy


This is not the time to consider the full reopening of the German economy, but rather the time to be strict and keep coronavirus infections low, Germany’s finance minister told CNBC, while adding that richer households will soon be paying more in taxes.

“There is not a time for opening. This is the time for being very tough, for keeping infection rates down,” German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told CNBC’s Annette Weisbach on Tuesday.

Europe’s most powerful economy has suffered from the coronavirus pandemic, having faced different waves of infections and subsequent lockdowns. In 2020, the German economy contracted almost 5%, according to data from the International Monetary Fund, and is only seen growing by 3.6% this year.

At the same time, opposing public health messages from national and regional leaders have further complicated the situation.

Armin Laschet, leader of the North Rhine-Westphalia, for instance, said on Monday there should be a nationwide lockdown. But only last week he had asked for flexibility so that the various state leaders could fight the pandemic as they see fit. Chancellor Angela Merkel also reversed plans for a lockdown over Easter.

“If we could come to similar measures in all the places this would help a lot and make it more understandable,” Scholz said, referring to the different regional approaches.

Covid chaos

There have been growing calls in Germany for a more united approach in the fight against the coronavirus. Citizens are frustrated with different arrangements among various regions while infections keep rising.

Merkel has herself asked for a tighter and uniform approach across the country, but regional leaders have so far prevented that.

As of Tuesday, Germany had registered more than 2.9 million cases of Covid-19 and 77,103 deaths, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

At the same time, there are concerns about the pace of the vaccination rollout. Germany has distributed 22.8 doses of Covid-19 shots per 100 inhabitants as of Monday, according to the ECDC. This is lower than France, Cyprus, Ireland and Hungary — just to name a few examples in the wider EU.

In addition, German health experts decided last week to suspend the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot for people aged below 60 due to renewed concerns over reports of blood clots. This could become another hurdle in the wider rollout as fewer people are now eligible to receive this shot and the number of available vaccines is still relatively limited.

Speaking to CNBC, Scholz appeared confident about the upcoming weeks and months for Covid vaccinations.

“I think we will come to a situation where at the end of this month it will be 4 to 5 million doses a week,” he said.

“I think this will make the necessary progress and this is why we have to be strict now because if we are strict in reducing the infections it will be easier to have the success coming from vaccinating,” he added.

More taxes

Scholz, a high-ranking figure of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, had previously said the country needs to do whatever is needed to exit the coronavirus-induced crisis.

Germany is expected to borrow more than 240 billion euros ($283 billion) this year to prop up the economy, an issue that more fiscally conservative lawmakers have contested. Germany has had a long record of keeping its finances in check, having legislated in 2009 that governments could not significantly incur new debt.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the dynamics around German debt as more experts argue that the government needs to keep on providing stimulus.

“We will continue to do whatever is necessary. That’s expensive — but doing nothing would lead to even higher costs,” Scholz told reporters late last month.

But with more borrowing, there will be more taxes.

Germany “will have the chance to tackle all the burdens which are coming from fighting against the coronavirus with better growth in the next years,” Scholz said, before adding: “There is obviously a situation where there is no time for tax reduces for rich people or for big corporates.”

“There is a need for tax relief for low and middle-income people in households but obviously those who are very rich, who have very high incomes and corporates could not expect tax reduces,” he said.

Germany is gearing up for national elections in late September. Merkel, who has served as chancellor of Europe’s largest economy for 16 years, has said she will not seek a fifth term in office.

“I am sure that there will be a change after the next elections. As you know I am running to be the next chancellor and my party wants to lead the next government and the chances are growing,” he said.

German Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz.


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