German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Picture: MICHEL KAPPELER/REUTERS
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Picture: MICHEL KAPPELER/REUTERS

Berlin — Chancellor Angela Merkel was on Sunday in quarantine after meeting a doctor who tested positive for Covid-19, as Germany further tightens rules on public gatherings and plots a taboo-breaking package of support for Europe's top economy.

News of Merkel's potential exposure to the virus came minutes after she announced a ban on public gatherings of more than two people and further infection control measures.

“The Chancellor has decided to quarantine herself immediately at home. She will be tested regularly in the coming days ... (and) fulfil her official business from home,” spokesperson Steffen Seibert said in a statement.

Merkel had been slated to lead a cabinet meeting Monday to sign off on a €822bn  slew of measures to support Europe's top economy through the shutdowns of public life designed to slow the infection's spread.

The infected doctor visited Merkel on Friday to vaccinate her against the pneumococcus bacteria.

It could take some days to determine whether the 65-year-old chancellor is herself infected as “a test would not yet be fully conclusive,” Seibert said.

Merkel showed no apparent symptoms of ill health in Sunday's televised press conference.

If Merkel were incapacitated, her role would be filled by vice-chancellor and finance minister Olaf Scholz of her junior coalition partners, the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Scholz last week isolated himself at home with a heavy cold, but tweeted a day later that he had tested negative for the coronavirus.

 Infection control 

Earlier Sunday, Merkel had announced still-tighter restrictions on public gatherings after a telephone conference with regional leaders that aimed to get Germany's 16 federal states into a common policy.

The closure of schools and non-essential shops had already been announced.

Businesses such as massage studios and hairdressers where people come into close contact will also be shut. And restaurants will be closed across Germany except for takeaway food.

The measures slated to last initially for two weeks, will be imposed by individual states, which will decide when to roll them out.

Merkel appealed to citizens' “reason and empathy” in implementing the contact restrictions, saying she had been “very moved” by how closely people had stuck to less stringent measures implemented in recent days.

The Robert Koch Institute, Germany's disease control authority, said early Sunday the number of confirmed coronavirus cases had grown by almost 2,000 in the previous 24 hours, to 18,610.

So far 55 Germans have died of the disease.

Economic riposte

Germany's all-out support to the economy on the cabinet agenda Monday includes hundreds of billions of euros in potential support for companies and workers.

Much of it will come in the form of state guarantees for bank loans to business and easier access to short-time working and unemployment benefits.

But Berlin also plans to blow through a constitutional rule that limits the size of the federal budget deficit in any one year, with about  €156bn  in new borrowing.

Ending the crisis “comes first”, Merkel has said, adding “we will see at the end of that where our budget stands”.

Meanwhile, Italy banned travel within the country on Sunday, intensifying measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus, as data showed a further 651 people had died from the disease, lifting the number of fatalities to 5,476.

Among the sectors targeted were the car, clothing and furniture industries. They have until Wednesday to wind down operations and will have to remain shuttered until April 3.

Italy has registered more deaths than any other country in the world, while the number of confirmed cases is second only to China, with the tally rising by 5,560 to 59,138 on Sunday, the Civil Protection Agency said.

AFP, Reuters