Thousands of protesters massed outside German parliament on Wednesday as lawmakers prepared to vote on a law amendment giving Angela Merkel’s government power to impose tougher measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic.
With Germany buckling under a third wave, the amended law, including school closures and night-time curfews, aims to end a political tug-of-war between the federal government and the 16 regional states over virus restrictions.
Several thousand protesters gathered in central Berlin on Wednesday morning, waving flags and placards, with many not wearing masks. About 2,000 police officers had been deployed in anticipation of the protests.
Dubbed the “emergency brake”, the law prescribes tough measures including sweeping shutdowns and overnight curfews in regions with incidence rates of more than 100 new infections per 100,000 people over the last seven days.
It would also force schools to revert to virtual teaching in states where the incidence rate exceeds 165 — a tighter requirement than the 200 contained in an earlier draft of the law.
Only one state had an incidence rate below 100 on Wednesday, while seven topped 165 — including the two most populous of Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia.
The proposals have come under fierce opposition, particularly the plans for curfews in a country still scarred by memories of Nazi and communist dictatorships that spied on citizens and stole their freedoms.
In the final draft presented on Monday, the proposed start time for the curfews was put back from 9:00 pm to 10:00 pm and exceptions have been added for lone walkers and joggers before midnight.
But Ulf Buermeyer, head of the Society for Civil Rights (GFF), still called it “unfair, unnecessary and unreasonable” in Der Spiegel news magazine on Tuesday.
The law needs a simple majority to pass through the Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, before going to a second vote in the upper house, or Bundesrat, on Thursday.
Virus restrictions in Germany have so far been decided in consultations between Merkel and the leaders of the 16 states, with the regions ultimately responsible for implementing them.
But in many cases, regional leaders have failed to put in place shutdown measures which they agreed with Merkel, with many choosing broad interpretations of the rules.
For example, though the rules require the closure of non-essential shops when the incidence rate tops 100, many regions have allowed them to open to people with negative tests, and some have even allowed outdoor dining to resume.
Merkel warned in a rare TV interview in March that she would not stand by and watch infection rates continue to rise, threatening the regional leaders with a change in the law if they did not play ball.
‘Cry for help’
Defending the plan for tougher rules during a heated debate in parliament on Friday, Merkel pointed out that other countries have imposed far more restrictive measures.
“The third wave of the pandemic has our country firmly in its grip,” she said. “The intensive care doctors are sending out one cry for help after another. Who are we if we ignore these emergency calls?”
Some German states, including Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Baden-Wuerttemberg, have already sharpened their rules in anticipation of the new law.
But critics say it does not go far enough, with doctors and scientists calling for a quick, hard lockdown to bring infections under control while the country’s vaccination effort picks up pace.
“A standardisation of the rules is welcome, but they are not far-reaching enough,” Thorsten Lehr, a professor of clinical pharmacy at Saarland University, told Der Spiegel.
Social Democrat MP and epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach told Die Welt newspaper the watered-down curfews would “extend the duration of the lockdown and, unfortunately, lead to unnecessary deaths”.
The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) health agency reported 24,884 new cases in the past 24 hours on Wednesday and 331 deaths, with a national incidence rate of 160.