German power vacuum complicates battle against fourth Covid wave

New restrictions agreed just last week have already been overtaken by events

Olaf Scholz  after a conference meeting in Berlin on Tuesday. He said  that, as chancellor, he will table a free Bundestag vote by year-end on a vaccine mandate. Photograph: EPA/Clemens Bilan

Olaf Scholz after a conference meeting in Berlin on Tuesday. He said that, as chancellor, he will table a free Bundestag vote by year-end on a vaccine mandate. Photograph: EPA/Clemens Bilan

 

After 16 years German chancellor Angela Merkel departs office on Thursday under a dark cloud: a record Covid-19 fourth wave that is killing nearly 400 people daily.

Meanwhile her presumed successor, Olaf Scholz, inherits a power vacuum over who should take political responsibility – and risk being blamed – for unpopular new restrictions before Christmas, including a possible national lockdown.

Previous waves of battling Covid-19 in Germany were a complicated balancing act between federal government and 16 state capitals. But the political interregnum in Berlin has complicated matters still further.

With outgoing and incoming administrations blaming each other for record infections, new restrictions agreed just last week have already been overtaken by events.

On Tuesday federal and state leaders held a video conference and agreed to hold another on Thursday. At that gathering they are expected to agree a co-ordinated vaccination push and, in a bid to encourage booster shots, cut the validity of vaccine certificates from 12 to six months.

Masks will be obligatory in all schools, sports events will only take place without fans and tighter controls will be introduced to exclude unvaccinated people from most stores, events and venues.

And after weeks of tortured debate in Germany over whether to make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory, fears over the latest variant have concentrated minds.

On Tuesday Mr Scholz said that, as chancellor, he will table a free Bundestag vote by year-end on a vaccine mandate. If passed, he said the provision would be in place by early March at the latest.

“My proposal is that we do not act as a government because it’s a question of conscience,” he told Bild TV.

Sounding off

After wearying days of political pass-the-parcel, a haggard Mr Scholz warned fellow politicians that the time had come “not to keep sounding off, but to act”.

Germany’s constitutional court agreed with that view on Tuesday, dismissing complaints against “emergency brake” measures of curfews, lockdowns and school closures imposed to break the third wave from April until the end of June.

That ruling gives Mr Scholz a free hand – and legal cover – should he need tougher restrictions to break Germany’s fourth wave.

After winning September’s election, his incoming government hoped to avoid that and instead reform Covid-19 rules to allow for regional lockdowns.

The thinking behind this was to allow state leaders in virus hotpots, such as Bavaria and Saxony, contain their runaway infections – up to five times the national average – without forcing restrictions on regions with far lower infection rates.

With ICU beds filling up and regional leaders wary of using their new competences, however, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Greens are planning legislation to once again allow a full lockdown.

Their future coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), is still holding out against the idea, however, meaning Germany’s new “traffic light” coalition is facing its first political snarl-up.

Vaccines

On an otherwise bleak day German vaccine developer BioNTech said it was likely that existing vaccines would protect vaccinated people if exposed to the Omicron variant. Chief executive Ugur Sahin said protection from illness was “even more pronounced once people have their third vaccination”.

“From my perspective there is no reason to be particularly unsettled,” said Prof Sahin . With an eye on Germany’s vaccination rate of 68.4 per cent, however, he added: “The only thing that unsettles me at the moment is that there are so many people who are not vaccinated.”

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