The Bundestag has passed the controversial amendments to the national Infection Protection Act that significantly tightens Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. The bill passed despite harsh criticism from the opposition.
The bill introducing new binding lockdown rules for the German states with high infection rates was approved by a narrow majority in the Bundestag on Wednesday. It received support from 342 MPs while 250 lawmakers voted against it and 64 abstained.
Some restrictions introduced by the amendments have been eased in comparison to the draft published by the German media in April.
Walking and jogging alone will be possible until midnight, unlike what German media has previously predicted. Schools and universities will have to switch to distance education only when the average incidence rate reaches 165 per 100,000 people. Non-essential shops will be able to allow customers with negative Covid-19 tests until the infection rate reaches 150, instead of just closing. After that, people will still be allowed to pick up preordered goods.
All federal states where an average seven-day Covid-19 infection rate rises over 100 per 100,000 people will have to impose a night-time curfew starting from 22:00 (and not 21:00 as it was originally intended).
Currently, 15 out of 16 German states fall under the restrictions of the bill, which is yet to be approved by the Bundesrat – another chamber of the German parliament representing the states.
Germany’s northernmost Schleswig-Holstein is the only one that has an incident rate lower than 100 per 100,000. In Saxony it is around 200 per 100,000 people, and in Thuringia it has surpassed 240.
The adoption of the bill was preceded by a heated discussion as the government coalition sought to deflect criticism leveled by the opposition. “What we need now is clarity and consistency,” said Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who is also the deputy head of the Social Democratic Party.
“We are in a situation where too many people are sick and too many are dying,” argued Ralph Brinkhaus the leader of the Union – a bloc uniting Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU). “We have to act here and now,” he added.
Health Minister Jehns Spahn also sought to convince the lawmakers that supporting the bill was the only way. “As sorry as we are: Reducing the number of contacts helps,” he said, adding that Germany has to “break the third wave first.”
“Contact and exit restrictions are necessary,” the minister added, calling the measures “the result of a democratic process.” The opposition lawmakers, however, were apparently not convinced.
Alexander Gauland, the head of the right-wing AfD party’s faction in the Bundestag, said the government is fighting the pandemic with “unsuitable means”, adding that the ministers “are stuck in their trenches.”
The Left Party faction’s co-chair Amira Mohamed Ali called the government’s approach “irresponsible”, slamming it for restricting the “fundamental rights” of the people. “The Left will never accept that. We continue to reject your law,” she said.
The liberal Free Democrats even announced they would file a complaint against the bill with the Constitutional Court.
“The planned curfews are not suitable measures,” said the party’s health policy spokeswoman, Christine Aschenberg-Dugnus. More active vaccination campaigning and better testing would be a healthier alternative to yet another lockdown, she added.
Ordinary Germans also did not seem to be particularly thrilled by a prospect the new bill offers. Earlier on Wednesday, more than 8,000 protesters opposing the bill held a demonstration in central Berlin. Large police forces were deployed to the area and the Reichstag building and the Brandenburg Gate were cordoned off.
Since many of the rally participants did not wear masks and did not adhere to social distancing requirements, the police eventually sought to disperse the crowd. The move ended up in scuffles between protesters and law enforcement that led to more than 150 arrests.
Germany also saw mass protests in November as the second wave hit the country, prompting Merkel to introduce restrictions. The nation is now facing a third wave, along with much of Europe.
The seven-day infection rate sits at around 160 cases per 100,000 people – lower than France but still higher than the UK.