Merkel overrides regional autonomy to enforce centralised lockdown

Decentralised system an impediment to coherent Covid policy, administration argues

A deserted tourist attraction, Trabi World, in Berlin. Photograph: Filip Singer/EPA

A deserted tourist attraction, Trabi World, in Berlin. Photograph: Filip Singer/EPA

 

Chancellor Angela Merkel has called time on Germany’s decentralised and at times chaotic Covid-19 response, readying a tough, nationwide lockdown to break the pandemic’s third wave.

In an unprecedented move on Friday, a spokeswoman for the chancellor announced plans to trigger emergency powers to override the 16 federal states’ lead competence in health, education and other key pandemic areas.

“The federal government and the Länder have agreed ... today to regulate consistently at federal level which restrictions are to be adopted,” said Ulrike Demmer, deputy government spokeswoman.

The move would strip federal states of any leeway in how they interpret a so-called “emergency brake” mechanism. Ms Demmer said the move was necessary because states were applying “in very different ways” the tool that is supposed to trigger shutdowns when local incidence rates top 100 cases per 100,000 of population over seven days.

The new plan is likely to include a 9pm curfew and the closure of all but essential shops and services in most of Germany, now already above 100; areas above 200, including regions of Saxony and Bavaria, will adopt additional measures including a likely schools closure.

Six months before her fourth and final term ends, Dr Merkel’s move is a final push to master the pandemic that has killed nearly 80,000 people in Germany, will shape her legacy and influence who succeeds her in the chancellery.

On Friday Merkel administration figures insisted her move was not about calling into question Germany’s postwar federal system, which gives state considerable political autonomy. But they said the decentralised system, which allowed quick and local responses on testing a year ago, had become an impediment now to coherent infection prevention.

“We really got a glimpse of the leadership skill – or lack thereof – among the state leaders,” said one Merkel official. “Where there’s a will there’s a way, but too many people would rather stand still, hindering others, than dare make a move.”

Benefits and risks

For the past two weeks Germany’s 16 state leaders have debated in detail the benefits and risks of a tougher lockdown, as demanded by the chancellor.

On Friday Germany’s lead disease control body, the Robert Koch Institute, sounded the alarm: while politicians talked, their hospitals’ intensive care units were filling up fast. “Every day we don’t act we are losing human lives,” said Dr Lothar Wieler, the institute’s president.

Even on Friday many state leaders still opposed a tighter shut-down and favoured blanket testing instead to keep shops open.

Others have changed their mind, such as Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader Armin Laschet, minister president of North Rhine-Westphalia. First he distanced himself from what he called Dr Merkel’s “lockdown logic” but now he favours a “lockdown bridge”. A three-week lockdown, he argued, would limit new infections as vaccinations ramp up, giving intensive care units breathing space.

On Sunday Mr Laschet will attend a meeting of the joint Bundestag parliamentary party of his CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Dr Merkel will also attend alongside the Bavarian and CSU leader Markus Söder.

Mr Söder and Mr Laschet each hope to lead the CDU/CSU federal election campaign and, though no decision is expected on Sunday, they will make their final pitch to MPs, nervous that pandemic-related slide in support could cost them their seat.

After months of logistics problems in large vaccination centres, German GPs were this week allowed to join the effort. Some 720,000 people were vaccinated in one day on Thursday – up 78 per cent on a week ago.

“In the last days more people were vaccinated than ever before,” said federal health minister Jens Spah. Nearly 15 per cent of German residents have now received at least one jab.