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Bundestag imposes tough COVID rules

Kate Brady
January 12, 2022

On the day Germany reported a record number of new COVID-19 cases, the country's lower house of parliament has tightened restrictions. Not all parliamentarians were happy, least of all the far-right AfD.

AfD MPs holding up signs reading "freedom instead of division"
AfD lawmakers protested against the Bundestag's new COVID restrictionsImage: Jens Krick/Flashpic/picture alliance

The long corridors inside the Reichstag building are covered in Cyrillic graffiti, which was scrawled onto the stone walls by the Red Army in 1945 when they liberated the German capital. It acts as a reminder of the building's tumultuous past.

On Wednesday, a wobbly, unremarkable sign stood against this historic backdrop, pointing members of parliament to an on-site COVID-19 testing station. It is a sign of the present, on the day Germany's public health agency, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported a record of more than 80,000 new COVID infections in one day.

Due to the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases, the German parliament voted Wednesday to step up inhouse rules,in line with regulations for the entire country. To enter the plenary chamber and the meeting rooms for the parliamentary committees, MPs who have not yet had a booster shot are now required to show proof of vaccination or recovery, plus a negative antigen test.

registry desk for vaccination center in the Bundestag
The Bundestag has its own vaccination centerImage: Kate Brady/DW

MPs who cannot be vaccinated on medical grounds can still enter the chamber with a negative PCR test result. But lawmakers who haven't been vaccinated at all can only sit in the public gallery. Even there, they also have to show proof of a negative antigen test.

Those who do not adhere to the new rules will face penalties if caught. The Bundestag administration plans to fine them 1,000 euros ($1,140) for the first offense and 2,000€ in the event of a repeat. A ban from the premises may also be imposed.

For MPs or Bundestag staff still deliberating whether or not to get a shot against COVID-19, a sign at one Reichstag entrance bearing the word "Impfen" (vaccinate), points to an in-house vaccination center.

Missing lawmakers

All parliamentary groups in the Bundestag voted in favor of the tighter measures, except for the far-right populist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) — which was missing around half of its MPs on Wednesday.

Some 18 AfD MPs sat in the public stands, while another 23 sat in their usual seats. The absence of the other half left an obvious gap of blue chairs.

Among the AfD's absentees was Beatrix von Storch who tested positive for COVID-19 in December. She tweeted a video from her office on Wednesday morning.

"I'm an elected member of the German parliament. I am healthy. I am recovered (from COVID-19)," von Storch said in the video.

"I have tested myself and I am absolutely not prepared to do this test again in front of the Bundestag management... They want to push that swab up my nose and I don't want that. This isn't about health. This is about humiliation and submission. I will not let myself be subjugated."

"The AfD will continue to speak up," von Storch vowed. "Not to safeguard freedom, but to win it back — and then to defend it."

Beatrix von Storch
Beatrix von Storch opposes the new test requirement for the plenary chamberImage: Ronny Hartmann/AFP/Getty Images

And speak up they did. AfD MPs could be heard heckling throughout speeches held by representatives from the other parties who had supported the new, stricter rules.

AfD lawmakers — both in the chamber and in the public gallery — also interrupted Chancellor Olaf Scholz's speech by holding up placards, something that is banned according to Bundestag rules.

Against a blue, white and red background they read "freedom instead of division" — reiterating comments made by AfD MP Bernd Baumann who said the measures in place divide not only society, "but this parliament too."

Left Party MP Sahra Wagenknecht, who has openly said that she isn't vaccinated against COVID-19, also criticized the rules ahead of Wednesday's session.

"Barring unvaccinated MPs from the plenary chamber instead of mandatory tests for everyone is epidemiologically nonsensical and obviously unconstitutional due to the fact that vaccination does not protect fully against infection and contagion," Wagenknecht told German news hub RND.

The AfD says it now wants to file a lawsuit against the new Bundestag regulations.

Alice Weidel, co-leader of the AfD parliamentary group, deplored on Tuesday that the "free mandate of MPs is restricted under the new rules."

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (r) speaking from the Bundestag seats for members of government
The new COVID restrictions were implemented in time for Chancellor Olaf Scholz's (r) first parliamentary question time Image: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

'Role model' for society

Andrew Ullmann, a parliamentarian for the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) and an infectious diseases doctor, rejected the criticism, however. "The new measures in parliament are important to show people outside that we apply the same rules. We have the responsibility here to act as a kind of role model," Ullmann told DW after Wednesday's session.

The new Bundestag rules come as restrictions for bars and restaurants are also being tightened across most of the country.

The five parliamentary groups that voted in favor of the new Bundestag regulations argued they aim to ensure that parliament can continue to work smoothly.

"We saw before Christmas that some MPs who were participating in committees which had been meeting in smaller meeting rooms, tested positive. That resulted in them and their contacts all having to quarantine," Ullmann said.

The Bundestag has also introduced stricter rules for the wearing of protective masks. Now, only FFP2 /N95 are permitted in the entire Reichstag building, and they may only be taken off when MPs are addressing parliament.

Several lawmakers on Wednesday were wearing masks under their noses, however, possibly in a show of defiance. Even before the start of the debate, an usherette was already seen admonishing AfD deputies up in the visitors' gallery to wear their masks properly.

Thomas Jarzombek, an MP with the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) spotted the AfD's von Storch in an elevator shouting "Gestapo" — the Nazi secret police — at a woman who asked her to wear her mask properly.

 "[That leaves me] Speechless," Jarzombek tweeted.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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