The EU on Tuesday said it was taking a closer look into billions of euros in aid promised by Germany to firms hit by the closure of coal-fired power plants, over concerns it may give them an unfair advantage.
“Our role is to safeguard competition by making sure that the compensation granted to the operators … is kept to the minimum necessary,” EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager said in a statement.
“The information currently at our disposal does not allow us to confirm this with certainty, and we will now investigate this further,” she added.
Germany has embarked on a plan to phase out coal as a source of electricity by 2038 and has promised 4.35 billion euros in aid to operators RWE and LEAG for lost profits.
The EU executive noted that “at this stage” the “preliminary view is that the German measure is likely to constitute state aid”.
Despite a green reputation abroad, Germany remains heavily reliant on dirty coal, partly because of a decision to abandon nuclear energy after the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
In the third quarter of 2020, just over half of the electricity produced in Europe’s top economy came from non-renewables, with coal alone accounting for 26 percent.
Climate activists have urged the government to speed up Germany’s coal exit, saying the current timetable is not ambitious enough.
Germany is donating an additional 1.5 billion euros ($1.8 billion) to boost the rollout of vaccines in the world’s poorest countries, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said Friday, increasing an earlier contribution of 600 million euros.
“Today we want to make clear: we stand with the poorest countries. Germany is providing a further 1.5 billion euros for Covax, WHO, and others,” Scholz said in a statement.
“Vaccines are the only way out of the pandemic.”
The move was announced following a virtual G7 meeting at which leaders pledged to move as one in ensuring coronavirus vaccines reach everyone in the world.
Rich countries have come under fire in recent months for hoarding Covid-19 jabs at the expense of poorer countries, despite warnings from health experts that vaccines can only end the pandemic if they are shared out across the globe.
European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen announced earlier on Friday that the bloc was doubling its contribution to the Covax global Covid-19 vaccination programme to one billion euros.
US President Joe Biden was expected to pledge $4 billion in aid to Covax during the virtual meeting with other leaders from the Group of Seven major industrial nations.
Covax is a global project to procure and distribute coronavirus vaccines for at least the most vulnerable 20 percent in every country, allowing poorer states to catch up with the vaccination rush by dozens of wealthy countries.
German Development Minister Gerd Mueller said just 0.5 percent of Covid-19 vaccinations had taken place in the world’s poorest countries.
“Only a global vaccination campaign can lead the way out of the pandemic. It must not fail because of financing,” he said.
When doctor Andreas Bootsveld has to make life-or-death decisions about Covid-19 patients, he is not alone — as well as consulting his colleagues, he can draw on the advice of a team of specialists.
These experts are not with him in the intensive care unit, but at a bigger hospital 20 kilometres (12 miles) away, linked up via videoconference as part of a project to connect medics in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
The project dubbed the Virtual Hospital has been running since March and aims to help smaller hospitals take in and care for Covid-19 patients, preventing major hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.
So-called telemedicine has become increasingly popular during the pandemic and could also be used in the future to help improve access to specialist care in areas outside of big cities.
“Patients suffering from respiratory failure are normally cases for large, multi-disciplinary and very well-equipped hospitals,” said Gernot Marx, director of the intensive care unit at Aachen University Hospital, one of the centres of expertise for the project.
“Local and regional hospitals would not normally do that,” he told AFP.
Thanks to the virtual consultations, “we can do things that would have absolutely required a transfer before,” said Bootsveld.
The doctor oversees 14 intensive care beds in the small hospital in the town of Stolberg — a fifth of the number overseen by Marx.
Telemedicine has made it possible to “safeguard intensive care capacity” during the pandemic, said project manager Sandra Dohmen.
“So far, 90 percent of our patients have been able to stay in hospitals close to where they live,” she said.
– Virtual advice network –
North Rhine-Westphalia had already been connecting 17 local hospitals with the region’s two big university hospitals through a virtual advice network since 2012.
But “the coronavirus in March was an opportunity to extend the offer” to all hospitals in the region, Dohmen said.
“There was a great fear that the situation in Germany would be comparable to that in Italy,” Marx said.
Participants in the scheme have so far carried out more than 1,800 videoconferences, helping to treat 300 patients.
A similar EU-backed scheme called ICU4Covid is planned to help doctors monitor some 30,000 patients a year across several countries.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn on Thursday suggested coronavirus restrictions could be lifted before spring, as case numbers in the country continued to edge downwards.
“We can’t stay in this hard lockdown all winter. We would not tolerate that well as a society,” Spahn said in an interview with the Funke media group.
Germany went into a partial lockdown in November, closing bars, restaurants and cultural and sporting facilities.
Schools and non-essential shops were added to the list in mid-December, with rules on mask-wearing and working from home tightened in January amid concerns over new virus variants.
The number of new infections and patients in intensive care has been falling steadily since the start of the year, a trend Spahn called “encouraging”.
But the Robert Koch Institute health body reported 14,211 new cases and 786 deaths on Thursday and an incidence rate of 81 — still well above the target of 50 that German politicians have set as a yardstick for reopening.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states will meet on Wednesday to decide whether to extend restrictions after they expire on February 14.
Some experts believe it is too soon to relax the measures, especially in the light of new, more contagious variants.
Ute Teichert, the head of the Federal Association of German Public Health Officers, called last week for a so-called zero-Covid strategy to stamp out infections.
“We cannot start relaxing (restrictions) again at an incidence rate of 100, 70 or 50,” she said.
But Spahn said the goal for Germany remained “to prevent the health system from being overburdened — and not to avoid every infection”.
“To get it down to zero infections and keep it that way comes at a disproportionate cost in other areas of life,” he said.
Just over two million older people and medical workers have so far received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, with calls growing for new freedoms for those who have had the jabs.
But the German Ethics Council, which advises the government on scientific and moral issues, on Thursday came out in opposition to lifting restrictions for those who have been inoculated.
Council head Alena Buyx advised against “individual relaxation of the rules”, pointing to a lack of evidence on whether those who have received jabs are still able to spread the virus.
Greek police on Tuesday announced a ban on large gatherings for a week for public health reasons, ahead of expected protests on a number of issues.
“All public gatherings of over 100 people (are restricted) until February 1,” the police said in a statement.
Student groups have been demonstrating for weeks against plans to introduce a special police force to guard universities.
Another protest on the issue is to be held on Thursday.
A protest has also been called Friday in support of the jailed top assassin of far-left extremist group November 17, Dimitris Koufontinas, who went on hunger strike earlier this month to demand a prison transfer.
Anarchist groups are also scheduled to protest at the Athens city hall Monday against an urban redevelopment plan.
Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday invited US President Joe Biden to visit Germany “as soon as the pandemic situation allows,” her spokesman said, in their first phone call since the Democrat took office.
In what appeared to be a markedly warm call compared to her conversations with Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, Merkel and the new US leader also underlined the importance of working together in the fight against Covid-19.
“The chancellor and the American president agree that stronger international efforts were needed to deal with the coronavirus pandemic,” said Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert in a statement.
On that note, she welcomed Biden’s decision to reverse Trump’s decision last July to pull the United States out of the World Health Organization — even as the pandemic was raging.
A few months later in November, Trump also yanked the United States out of the Paris climate accord, claiming it “was designed to kill the American economy” rather than save the environment.
Also lauding Biden’s decision to return to the Paris agreement, Merkel pledged “Germany’s readiness to assume responsibility as it works with European and transatlantic partners in dealing with international tasks”.
Merkel said Thursday during a press conference that there was far more common ground with Washington now that Biden has replaced Trump.
Germany on Friday passed two million coronavirus cases as a World Health Organization emergency committee readied to issue advice on stemming the spread of new, more contagious strains of the disease.
The surge in Europe’s biggest economy came as countries on the continent again tightened restrictions, with Portugal entering a fresh lockdown and Britain requiring negative tests for entry.
Despite the rollout of vaccines — India’s mammoth programme will begin on Saturday — many nations are doubling down on efforts to stall a pandemic that has now claimed almost two million lives.
Fresh curbs on populations were announced from Brazil to Lebanon, and Mexico has been hit with its deadliest week of the pandemic yet.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday pushed for a “significant” tightening of curbs to slow the infection rate as the European Union’s most populous country added more than 22,000 new cases.
The chancellor said she wanted to bring forward crisis talks with regional leaders to the coming week, participants at a meeting of her centre-right CDU party told AFP.
They quoted her as saying the virus could only be stopped with “significant additional measures” and people urgently needed to reduce social contact.
At the Meissen crematorium in the state of Saxony, coffins were stacked up to three high or even stored in hallways awaiting cremation. The eastern region has been one of Germany’s worst-hit areas in recent weeks.
Manager Joerg Schaldach, 57, said anyone still denying the severity of the pandemic should come and take a look at the bodies piling up.
“This is heavy work, so why don’t the Covid-19 deniers come and do it,” he said.
“We have a disastrous situation here.”
– ‘Worrying’ – Germany has fared better than many of its European neighbours in the pandemic, with France, Italy, Spain and Britain all recording more infections despite smaller populations.
Britain on Thursday said it would ban all arrivals from South American countries from Friday over fears of importing a new coronavirus strain.
“I’ve taken the urgent decision… following evidence of a new variant in Brazil,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said on Twitter.
The new strain, known as E484K, has raised alarm among researchers over its possible impact on immunity.
London will also begin Friday requiring all arrivals to show evidence of a clean coronavirus test taken in the last 72 hours to gain entry to the country.
Brazil’s northern Amazonas state announced a 7 pm to 6 am curfew as the health system is pushed to breaking point in the state capital Manaus.
Global health experts were expected on Friday to issue recommendations to stem the spread of this variant and other new strains, which the WHO called “worrying”.
The WHO’s emergency committee normally gathers every three months but its meeting was brought forward by two weeks.
“When you first met almost a year ago, just 557 cases of the disease we now call Covid-19 had been reported to the WHO,” director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in his opening remarks to the emergency meeting Thursday.
– Stimulus plan – Scientists say large-scale vaccination is the only way out of the crisis but 95 percent of the doses so far administered have been limited to just 10 countries, the WHO’s European branch said.
Progress on administering vaccines has often been slow, such as in the United States, where around 10 million people have received a first shot, even as 4,000 people die from the virus every day.
American policymakers were on Thursday focused on addressing the economic damage from the pandemic, with President-elect Joe Biden unveiling a proposal for a $1.9 trillion relief package aimed at revitalising the world’s largest economy.
Biden aims to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, help struggling state and local governments, safely reopen schools, boost the vaccination campaign and raise the size of stimulus cheques Congress approved last month.
“In this moment of crisis… we cannot afford inaction,” Biden said.
Britain said on Sunday it has helped raise $1 billion (818 million euros) from global donors towards the drive to help “vulnerable countries” access coronavirus vaccines, by match-funding contributions.
The UK said, in addition, it has committed £548 million to the COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC), after matching with £1 every $4 pledged by other donors.
Canada, Japan and Germany are among the countries to make contributions that it matched, helping the AMC raise more than $1.7 billion in total so far.
The fund will allow for the distribution of one billion Covid-19 vaccine doses to 92 developing countries this year, according to Britain’s Foreign Office.
“We’ll only be safe from this virus, when we’re all safe — which is why we’re focused on a global solution to a global problem,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement.
The announcement came as Britain marks the 75th anniversary of the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in London, hosting UN Secretary-General António Guterres for a so-called virtual visit starting Sunday.
Guterres will on Monday meet Raab and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as well as Alok Sharma, who was this week designated full-time president of the UN’s next major climate summit, COP26, in November.
Sharma had previously done the role part-time alongside his UK government job of secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, which he left Friday.
Ahead of the virtual visit, Guterres said he was honoured to “renew our cause of overcoming global challenges together, and celebrate a country that was instrumental in creating the United Nations”.
Also on Monday, Guterres and global leaders will try to reignite international environmental diplomacy with a biodiversity summit to launch a critical year for efforts to stem the devastating effects of global warming and species loss.
The One Planet Summit, a largely virtual event hosted by France in partnership with the United Nations and the World Bank, will include French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Union chief Ursula Von der Leyen.