A New Year and a New Leader, but Germany’s Focus Remains on Covid

HANOVER, Germany — There was a new face delivering the chancellor’s New Year’s Eve address, but for Covid-weary Germans, the focus was all too familiar.

Under normal circumstances, Chancellor Olaf Scholz — the first person in nearly two decades other than Angela Merkel to deliver the address — would have used the occasion on Friday to lay out his vision and wish people a happy New Year.

But these are not normal circumstances, so while he was able to touch on a variety of issues like climate change, the economy and European security, the spotlight was on the coronavirus and the country’s response to it.

In writing the speech, Mr. Scholz and his staff appeared keenly aware that their best hope of pushing through their agenda was to inspire a sense of national cohesion in a country where the differences have often been on vivid display.

“What I perceive everywhere is a huge solidarity, an overwhelming willingness to help and a new sense of pulling together and linking up,” Mr. Scholz said in a roughly nine-minute prerecorded speech that was broadcast by public television and radio.

The pandemic has dominated life in Germany and the rest of the world for the better part of two years, and finding that sense of unity will present Mr. Scholz, who was approved by Parliament to replace Ms. Merkel less than four weeks ago, with a daunting and immediate challenge.

The highly contagious Omicron variant has set the stage for what is expected to be Germany’s fifth wave of the virus, and the response has been complicated by the presence of a strident anti-vaccination movement, whose German adherents often come from the country’s east and have ties to the far right. As recently as Monday, thousands of people took to the streets to oppose coronavirus restrictions and vaccine mandates.

A protest against virus restrictions in December in Düsseldorf, Germany. A strident anti-vaccination movement has complicated the country’s pandemic response.Credit…Ina Fassbender/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Officially, coronavirus numbers have been dropping since the end of November: The authorities registered 41,240 new cases on Thursday and 323 new deaths, but the situation is believed to be worse.

Britain, France, Greece, Portugal and other European countries broke records this week for the number of daily cases, and Karl Lauterbach, Mr. Scholz’s new health minister, took the unusual step of warning on Wednesday that the number of people who have been infected could be up to three times as high as documented.

“One thing is clear: The next few days and weeks will also be dominated by corona,” said Mr. Scholz, dressed soberly in a dark suit and tie.

The concerns about Omicron — which so far appears to cause milder illness, but which has nonetheless raised worries that its rapid spread could overwhelm Germany’s health services — have prompted states to enact stricter rules in the days since Christmas.

Private gatherings of vaccinated people have been limited to 10 or fewer, nightclubs and discos have been closed and the number of people who can attend cultural or sporting events has been further reduced.

Those rules come on top of restrictions that require vaccination or proof of recovery to gain access to restaurants, most shops and services like hairdressers, severely limiting how much public life unvaccinated Germans can participate in.

Analogous to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats,” the German New Year’s Eve speech gives the new leader the chance to speak directly to the public from the chancellery in Berlin. Some of the passages in his address were reminiscent of the campaign stump speech delivered by Mr. Scholz that helped his Social Democratic Party carry the plurality of seats in the German Parliament in the September elections.

“The 20s are becoming a decade of new beginnings,” he said.

But, as was the case with Ms. Merkel’s final address, Mr. Scholz’s first was largely focused on the virus and the pandemic’s effects on society.

Mr. Scholz asked Germans both to respect the restrictions and to get vaccinated. That has been a refrain from mainstream politicians of all stripes ever since the national drive began in earnest in early 2021.

Receiving a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine in Chemnitz, Germany, in December. The new chancellor used his New Year’s speech to push for vaccinations.Credit…Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

Even though the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine — which is being administered all over the world — was partly developed in Germany, the country’s citizens have shown a reluctance to get vaccinated. After a recent inoculation campaign, 71 percent of Germans have been fully vaccinated, a lower rate than any other large European Union country, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford.

“Now it’s all about speed,” Mr. Scholz said. “We have to be faster than the virus.”

Polls show that nearly three-quarters of Germans who refuse to get vaccinated are worried about the safety of the vaccines, and Mr. Scholz took time in his speech to address those concerns directly, noting that there has been no evidence of major side effects amid the global vaccination campaign.

The speech usually draws a large German audience. Last New Year’s Eve, nine million people watched Ms. Merkel’s speech on the two main public television channels. The speech is also broadcast on the radio and receives extensive coverage in newspapers.

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