Merkel set to take control as German states dither over Covid spread

The German government is expected to agree Tuesday on controversial changes to a national infections control law which would hand Berlin more centralised power to impose sweeping measures to curb the raging coronavirus pandemic.

Merkel set to take control as German states dither over Covid spread
Chancellor Angela Merkel on April 11th. Photo: DPA

The proposed changes, criticised by some states, could give Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government the power to impose night-time curfews and close schools in areas with high infection rates.

The move aims to end a political tug-of-war between the federal government and powerful regions over coronavirus measures, as Germany remains gripped by a dangerous third wave of the pandemic which is putting increased strain on the country’s health system.

Currently coronavirus measures are decided on in consultation with Berlin and – in theory – implemented by the federal states.

READ ALSO: Merkel vs Germany’s states: Who really holds the power to fight the pandemic?

Yet in many cases, regional leaders have failed to put in place shutdown measures to which they agreed with Merkel, with some even allowing shops and cinemas to reopen.

At a press conference on Monday, Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said the new law aimed to create “uniform national” rules.

“The aim is to bring the country as quickly as possible to a situation with much lower infection rates at which we can responsibly ease restrictions with testing,” he said.

READ ALSO: German lockdown measures could last ‘until the end of May or June’

Bitter disputes

Regular meetings between Berlin and the regions to set Germany’s coronavirus policies have been marked by bitter disputes and spotty compliance in recent weeks.

Most notably, some states have not followed through on an agreement to row back on the easing of measures in areas where the seven-day incidence rate exceeds 100 new infections per 100,000 people.

The adjusted law set to pass cabinet on Tuesday would give Berlin the power to enforce this “emergency brake”.

In a draft seen over the weekend, measures included a night-time curfew between 9pm and 5am, the closing of non-essential shops and restricting private gatherings to five people from two households.

The draft would also see the government force schools – usually strictly within the remit of the federal states — to revert to virtual teaching in most cases.

READ ALSO: These are the new powers that Merkel plans to acquire in battle against pandemic

Yet amid fierce criticism from some regional leaders, Seibert said Monday that discussions over details were still ongoing.

Lower Saxony’s interior minister Boris Pistorius told Die Welt newspaper on Monday that it was a “big mistake to take power from the regions in the middle of a crisis”.

The German Association of Towns and Municipalities also criticised the plans, telling the Rheinische Post that the proposed curfews were “constitutionally problematic”.

The changes would also still have to pass through parliament, where Merkel’s right-left coalition has a majority.

The law could also potentially be passed without approval from the upper house Bundesrat, where passage of the bill is less certain.

“We don’t need to have everyone on board,” Ralph Brinkhaus, parliamentary leader for Merkel’s conservatives, told public broadcaster ARD.

‘People will lose their lives’

The controversial move away from Germany’s strict federal structures comes as Europe’s biggest economy struggles to contain rising infection rates.

“The 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,” said Merkel.

LATEST: Covid-19 infections in Germany rise above 3 million

Case numbers continue to rise despite cultural venues, restaurants and leisure facilities having been closed for months, with the total number of infections passing the three million mark on Monday.

Health authorities warned last week that hospitals could become overwhelmed without tougher national measures.

“If we don’t go into lockdown, a lot of people will lose their lives,” said Lothar Wieler, head of the Robert Koch Institute infectious disease agency.

By Kit Holden

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German Finance Minister calls for cap on TV tax after Queen’s funeral coverage

Germany's Finance Minister Christian Lindner is calling for a freeze on broadcasting fees as well as savings, citing the example of coverage of Queen Elizabeth II's funeral for where savings could have been made.

German Finance Minister calls for cap on TV tax after Queen's funeral coverage

Every household in Germany has to pay the broadcasting contribution fee – called the Rundfunkbeitrag – regardless of whether there is a radio, television, or computer in the home or not. 

Lindner said he saw large savings potentials among the state broadcasters, referring to the coverage in Germany of the Queen’s funeral on Monday. 

“The fact that (German broadcasters) ARD, ZDF and Phoenix are broadcasting live and in parallel from the Queen’s funeral from London, and are each in London with their own staff, vividly demonstrates that there is considerable potential for savings,” he told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung.

READ ALSO: Do I have to pay Germany’s Rundfunkbeitrag?

He also called for a freeze on future fee hikes.

As The Local reported, the tax went up in 2021 from €17.50 to the current €18.36. It can be paid by direct debit or by quarterly invoice and is the main source of income for public broadcasters in Germany. 

“Suspending fee increases relieves the burden on people at a time of rapidly rising prices,” said Lindner. 

German Finance Minister Christian Lindner.

German Finance Minister Christian Lindner. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Lindner also said it would serve as an incentive for broadcasters to become leaner and focus on their core mission. He added: “I’m sure that cooperation can save large sums of money without having a negative impact on programming.”

A spokeswoman for NDR, the broadcaster responsible for ARD’s reporting, told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung that the staff costs were comparatively low, but did not give details.

In total, ARD and ZDF sent just under 50 employees to London, including presenters, experts and production staff, the statement said. ZDF said it has been alternating other royal events with ARD by arrangement for several years, but the death of Elizabeth II was an exception. In future, broadcasters will return to the old practice. 

At the weekend, Lindner called on top staff at public broadcasters to cap their salaries, telling Bild am Sonntag that “no director should earn more than the chancellor”.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to pay Germany’s TV tax, or (legally) avoid it