Germany: Clashes erupt as parliament votes on COVID rules

Police clash with anti-lockdown protesters as legislators approve handing gov’t enhanced powers to impose restrictions.

The German government's proposal seeks to end the patchwork approach that has characterised the pandemic response across Germany’s 16 states to date [Markus Schreiber/AP Photo]

Police have clashed with protesters in Berlin as they tried to disperse a rally against the coronavirus lockdown, as parliament approved a law to give Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government more powers to fight a third wave of the pandemic.

Merkel drew up the law after some of Germany’s 16 federal states refused to impose tough measures despite a surge in cases. Her government has come under fire for its chaotic handling of lockdowns and slow vaccination campaign.

Police said on Twitter they would break up Wednesday’s protest because many in the crowds of demonstrators were not wearing face masks or keeping a distance from one another. Up to 2,200 officers were on duty in Berlin to manage the protests.

Some 150 people were detained after they attacked officers or disregarded distancing rules. Police used pepper spray against other demonstrators who threw bottles and tried to climb over barriers.

“Peace, freedom, no dictatorship!” some protestors chanted, many waving German flags and banners which said the coronavirus lockdown undermines values enshrined in the constitution.

Demonstrations against the legislation have been staged in the last few weeks in towns across the country.

The new legislation enables the national government to impose curfews between 10 p.m. (20:00 GMT) and 5 a.m. (03:00 GMT), as well as limits on private gatherings, sport and shop openings. Schools will close and return to online lessons if the virus incidence exceeds 165 cases per 100,000 residents.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has said the legislation is needed now with Germany “firmly” in the grips of a “third wave”, as case numbers rise in several parts of the country.

To date, a patchwork approach has characterised the pandemic response across Germany’s 16 states with lockdown measures decided at the state level.

Critics say this strategy has led to confusion, with governors interpreting rules agreed with the federal government in different ways, despite having similar infection rates.

The lower house of parliament voted 342-250 in favour of the amendment on Wednesday, with 64 abstentions. The upper house, where state governments are represented, is due to consider the proposed change on Thursday.

If approved, the amendment would apply until the end of June.

“As hard as it is, as sick of it as we are, reducing contact helps,” Health Minister Jens Spahn told legislators ahead of the vote.

“We are again seeing 5,000 COVID-19 intensive care patients and rising, with the age of the patients sinking,” Spahn said. “We want to avoid an overburdening of our health system, an overburdening that many of our neighbouring countries have experienced painfully.”

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

As well as on the streets, there is opposition to the proposed law in parliament.

Alexander Gauland of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which opposes lockdown measures in general, called it an “attack on rights of freedom, federalism and common sense” prior to Wednesday’s vote.

The Greens had different objections.

“This emergency brake remains too half-hearted, too ineffective, too inconsistent and too disproportionate,” legislator Maria Klein-Schmeink said.

‘Emergency brake’

The German government’s proposal would allow federal authorities to apply an “emergency brake” in regions where COVID-19 is judged to be surging rapidly.

That would lead to a uniform set of rules including a nighttime curfew, limits on physical contact and the closure of leisure and sports facilities. Access to shops would either be limited, or retailers would close altogether.

The measures would affect areas where there are more than 100 weekly new cases per 100,000 residents. Schools would have to switch to distance learning at a higher rate of 165.

Germany’s nationwide rate stood at 160 new cases per 100,000 residents on Wednesday.

Although there were wide regional variations, only one state had an incidence rate below 100 on Wednesday, while seven topped 165.

Source: News Agencies