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Germany: Federal government to control coronavirus response

April 9, 2021

The federal government is planning legislation to pave the way for nationwide measures as the country battles a third wave of coronavirus infections.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has run out of patience with state premiers who waffle on coronavirus measuresImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

The German federal government is planning to pass new legislation that will allow it to take control from states and impose uniform coronavirus restrictions across the country, Deputy Government Spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer announced on Friday.

Demmer told reporters in Berlin that the country's 16 state premiers had agreed to the new legislation in an effort to more effectively fight Germany's current surge in COVID-19 cases.

"The federal government plans to introduce draft legislation next week, in close coordination with the states, that includes a binding and comprehensive emergency brake for districts with an incidence of 100 cases and up," said Demmer.

Germany's current seven-day nationwide incidence rate is around 110.

How will the new mew measures work?

The new compulsory measures would be imposed on states where the infection rate is above 100 but powers would be returned to those states once the infection rate falls back below that threshold.

"Everyone has the feeling that it makes sense to impose rules across the country in such a uniform way that everyone knows where they stand," as Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz said, noting that the current glut of individual lockdown regulations were confusing to all.

Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer also welcomed the announcement, saying it
was "imperative that in the thirteenth month of the pandemic, parliament take the reins and thus also responsibility."

Why does the German federal government want to take control?

The move by the Merkel administration follows weeks of frustration over Germany's 16 state leaders' myriad approaches to handling the rise in infections. Despite federal and state governments having agreed on March 3 that an "emergency brake" be imposed in states where infection rates exceeded 100 per 100,000 over a seven-day period, some state leaders have loosely interpreted just what response was required.

Merkel, who said she'd hoped the original accord would be treated at face value, has criticized the lack of uniform restrictions and previously proposed drawing up legislation to hand the federal government powers to overrule the states.

The proposed new rules could put an end to any selective interpretation of just what to do when states see infections spike.

Tougher action on table as government approval plummets

Merkel and other leading lawmakers, such as Health Minister Jens Spahn, have called for a short, hard lockdown in Germany as daily cases remain worryingly high and threaten to overwhelm the nation's healthcare system.

Spahn on Friday suggested implementing curfews, as is already the case in the capital Berlin. He also warned that current infections were being undercounted since fewer tests were carried out over the long Easter weekend, claiming that real numbers were likely much higher.

Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany's infectious disease authority, suggested implementing a two-to-four-week lockdown to curb the third wave of infections.

In a bit of good news, a significant ramp-up of vaccinations on Thursday and Friday was a cause for celebration and hope in Germany, which has been plagued by starts and fits when it comes to vaccinating citizens. On Friday alone, a record-breaking number of COVID-19 vaccine doses — almost 720,000 — were administered.

When will the changes come?

It is as yet unclear just what powers the federal government will assume and what tools it will have at its disposal, though both Berlin and the states have already agreed that curfews and contact limits must be among them. A new parliamentary study also suggests that it is within the federal government's power to mandate school closings in order to curb infections. 

A meeting between Chancellor Angela Merkel and the state premiers planned for this coming Monday was canceled Friday but negotiations will continue over the weekend and the federal Cabinet is expected meet on Tuesday rather than Wednesday to present an amendment to the Infection Protection Act.

At that point, the amendment will head to the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, where the body's president, Wolfgang Schäuble, said, "Things can go fast if that's what participants want." But such speed will require opposition parties to give their consent as well and that is not guaranteed. 

Germany's Federal Council would then assess the proposed changes, though it is unclear if its approval would be required or if it could object to the federal government's proposals. Depending on how quickly Berlin wants to proceed, the Council would have to be convened for a special meeting as its next regularly scheduled meeting is not until May 7.

How do Germans feel about the idea of a tougher and longer lockdown?

js,ab/msh (AFP, dpa, Reuters)