Merkel pulls rank with new emergency Covid-19 rulebook

‘Long overdue’ bill will strip the country’s 16 federal states of their competences on health, education and other key areas

 An empty Neumarkt square in Dresden.  Germany’s seven-day incidence rate rose on Tuesday to 140.98, the highest in three months.  Photograph: EPA/Filip Singer

An empty Neumarkt square in Dresden. Germany’s seven-day incidence rate rose on Tuesday to 140.98, the highest in three months. Photograph: EPA/Filip Singer

 

Chancellor Angela Merkel launched an unprecedented takeover of Germany’s Covid-19 response on Tuesday, presenting what she called a “long overdue” bill to strip the country’s 16 federal states of their competences on health, education and other key areas.

Dr Merkel’s move is her final push before leaving office later this year to master the year-long pandemic by replacing a patchwork quilt of restrictions with uniform, harsher lockdown rules.

“It’s necessary to put our co-operation on a new footing,” said Dr Merkel. “Infection numbers are too high at the moment, the pressure on our intensive care stations is growing, and we have to say that this third wave is perhaps the hardest one to break.”

After a year of lighter lockdown measures, the new proposals resemble those imposed in other European countries: night curfews from 9pm to 5am and the closure of schools and businesses if seven-day incidence rates top 100 infections per 100,000 residents over three consecutive days.

Other proposed measures would forbid people leaving their homes except for work, exercise, to take care of pets or for medical emergencies. Private gatherings would be limited to one household and one other person.

Measures

Many of these measures already exist on paper in so-called “emergency brake” provisions. However, many federal states have side-stepped their implementation by pushing widespread testing that allows shopping and other activities for people with a negative test.

Germany’s seven-day incidence rate rose on Tuesday to 140.98, the highest in three months. Similarly, intensive care bed occupation is at its highest rate since January, even as Germany’s vaccination rollout picks up speed.

After weeks of passionate debate Germany’s federal and regional leaders are mindful of growing fatigue with restrictions, and – with one eye on looming elections in September – are divided, largely on party lines, over whether to back or resist the Merkel plan.

State leaders from the chancellor’s own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and their Bavarian allies the Christian Social Union (CSU) mostly favour allowing Berlin take control when incidence rates rise above 100.

However, states governed by Social Democratic Party (SPD) leaders are largely opposed, in particular to forced school closures, while Berlin’s SPD governing mayor Michael Müller has questioned the efficacy of the curfew: “Going for a walk alone or as a couple is no great danger.”

In SPD-controlled Lower Saxony, interior minister Boris Pistorius said it was a “big mistake to take power from the regions in the middle of a crisis”.

Majority

The new pandemic bill is expected to be hurried this week through the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament where Dr Merkel’s coalition has a majority. It then passes to the upper house, the Bundesrat, where federal states will vote.

Germany’s pandemic response has spilled over into the race to succeed Dr Merkel as chancellor, with CDU and CSU leaders vying for MPs’ support on Tuesday.

Asked about the race to lead the centre-right’s election campaign, Dr Merkel said: “I wanted, want to, and will keep out of it.”