Germany’s Merkel pushes for widening of powers as COVID surges

Chancellor Merkel says gov’t must be able to impose ’emergency brake’ restrictions on regions with high infection rates.

In Germany, lockdown measures are currently decided at a state level [Michele Tantussi/Reuters]

Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged the German parliament to pass a bill granting her government new powers to force coronavirus lockdowns and curfews in areas with high infection rates, as case numbers continue to climb.

Addressing legislators in the lower house on Friday, Merkel warned that Germany was “firmly” in the grips of a “third wave”.

“The situation is serious, very serious, and we need to take it seriously,” she said, noting that most citizens were in favour of introducing stricter measures.

Merkel’s speech came as Germany recorded 25,831 new cases of COVID-19 overnight and 247 more deaths, according to the Robert Koch Institute disease control centre.

She said intensive care workers were “sending one distress call after the other” amid the surge.

“Who are we to ignore their pleas?” Merkel said. “We cannot be permitted to leave the doctors and nurses alone.”

Patchwork pandemic response

Merkel wants to amend the Infection Protection Act so federal authorities can tighten restrictions, even if regional leaders resist them.

The move seeks to end the patchwork approach that has characterised the pandemic response across Germany’s 16 states to date.

Lockdown measures are currently decided at the state level and many have expressed frustration and confusion in recent months as governors interpreted rules agreed with the federal government in different ways, despite having similar infection rates.

If it comes into effect, the change would allow the federal government to impose an “emergency brake” in regions when the spread of the coronavirus becomes too rapid, and more than 100 new weekly cases per 100,000 inhabitants are being recorded.

Currently, the infection rate across Germany stands at just above 160 cases each week per 100,000 residents.

The “emergency brake” would lead to a uniform set of rules entailing the closure of stores, cultural and sports facilities, limits on personal contacts, and nighttime curfews.

Merkel faces uphill battle to pass bill

Passing the bill is likely to be an uphill battle for Merkel, with state governments reluctant to cede authority over healthcare to the federal administration.

Her speech in parliament was interrupted by heckling from legislators belonging to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has been vocally and persistently opposed to COVID-19 lockdowns.

Merkel has also faced criticism from within her own conservative bloc, which opinion polls suggest will suffer their worst ever result in an upcoming September national election.

The proposed change to the Infection Protection Act must be approved by the lower house of parliament and the state-run upper house.

The lower house is expected to vote on the bill next week, with the upper house to follow.

AfD voices opposition

Merkel acknowledged that the new powers were no bulletproof solution to the pandemic, which she said could only be defeated with vaccinations.

However, she called for coordination across various levels of government to limit the spread of the more transmissible coronavirus strain, known as the Kent or UK variant, sweeping across Germany.

“There is no way around it. We need to stop this third wave of the pandemic,” she said.

“And to achieve this we need to better combine the strengths of the federal, state and local governments than we have been.”

The AfD, like many far-right groups across Europe, argues restrictions have failed to halt the pandemic and cause more damage to the economy and people’s mental health, claiming distancing measures are an unprecedented attack on basic democratic freedoms.

“The proposed amendments of the Infection Protection Act are an alarming document of an authoritarian state,” AfD parliamentary leader Alice Weidel said on Friday. “This relapse into the authoritarian demon is coming from the chancellery and you, Madame Chancellor.”

Source: News Agencies