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German police under fire for using tracing app to find witnesses

German police drew criticism Tuesday for using an app to trace contacts from bars and restaurants in the fight against the pandemic as part of an investigation.

A barcode used for the Luca check-in app to trace possible Covid contacts at a Stuttgart restaurant.
A barcode used for the Luca check-in app to trace possible Covid contacts at a Stuttgart restaurant. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

The case stemming from November last year began after the fatal fall of a man while leaving a restaurant in the western city of Mainz.

Police seeking possible witnesses made use of data from an app known as Luca, which was designed for patrons to register time spent in restaurants and taverns to track the possible spread of coronavirus.

Luca records the length of time spent at an establishment along with the patron’s full name, address and telephone number – all subject to Germany’s strict data protection laws.

However the police and local prosecutors in the case in Mainz successfully appealed to the municipal health authorities to gain access to information about 21 people who visited the restaurant at the same time as the man who died.

After an outcry, prosecutors apologised to the people involved and the local data protection authority has opened an inquiry into the affair.

“We condemn the abuse of Luca data collected to protect against infections,” said the company that developed the Luca app, culture4life, in a statement.

It added that it had received frequent requests for its data from the authorities which it routinely rejected.

Konstantin von Notz, a senior politician from the Greens, junior partners in the federal coalition, warned that abuse of the app could undermine public trust.

“We must not allow faith in digital apps, which are an important tool in the fight against Covid-19, to disappear,” he told Tuesday’s edition of Handelsblatt business daily.

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COVID-19

German states clash with government over new Covid protection laws

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Thursday that the pandemic was "not over yet" but that the country was entering a "new phase". However, states have raised concerns about the plan to drop almost all Covid measures.

German states clash with government over new Covid protection laws

The Chancellor held talks with German state leaders on Thursday to discuss the pandemic, as well as the war in Ukraine and how Germany can better manage and support refugees having to flee their homes.

It came as the German government gets set to drop almost all Covid measures on March 20th. Basic restrictions – like mandatory masks on public transport and in health settings will remain – as well as a ‘hotspot’ mechanism for bringing in tougher rules in areas where Covid cases build up.

The new slimmed-down Infection Protection Act is set to pass through the Bundestag and Bundesrat on Friday.

READ ALSO: The key Covid rule changes this week in Germany

But German states feel that they have been ignored and fear that the law changes planned by the coalition government will leave them with barely any options for combating the pandemic.

North Rhine-Westphalia premier Hendrik Wüst, who spoke by video link because he is in Covid isolation due to an infection, said the draft law was “legally uncertain and practically unworkable”.

Scholz defended the new law for Covid measures against criticism, saying it was a “legal basis on which to build for the future”.

However, Scholz also praised the “constructive discussion” with state premiers.

He said he was concerned about the high Covid infections. But the Chancellor said the situation in hospitals and intensive care units was not developing dramatically, and the Omicron variant resulted in less severe illness generally. Once again, he appealed to citizens to get vaccinated.

READ ALSO: How worried should we be about Germany’s rising Covid infections?

Earlier in the day, the Bundestag exchanged blows for the first time over a possible vaccine mandate in Germany. 

MPs debated two bills and three motions for and against compulsory vaccination.

Several speakers warned of new restrictions on freedom in autumn without compulsory vaccination, while others said they were strictly against vaccine mandates.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) told MPs: “We can end the pandemic for Germany for the first time with compulsory vaccination. We’ll be in the same place in autumn as we are now if we don’t seize this unique opportunity together.”

Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) said: “People in this country are fed up. Let’s finally get this pandemic over with, get rid of the virus and then return to freedom.”

Opposing views across parliamentary groups became clear.

Tabea Rößner, of the Green Party, said: “Many are afraid, some report strong reactions to vaccination.”

Left-wing politician Gregor Gysi said: “I was for it (vaccine mandate) with measles because that eradicated the disease, the (Covid) vaccine can’t do that here.”

MPs will vote on the mandate in April. 

Support for refugees

After the talks on Thursday Scholz said that the federal and state governments were united and wanted to support refugees from Ukraine in Germany. 

He admitted that “this will be a big, big challenge”.

Scholz said it was now a matter of providing help quickly and without complications, to make sure that refugees can work and that children can go to school “immediately”.

READ ALSO: German states call for more support in managing refugee crisis

Scholz also praised the “overwhelming culture of willingness to help” in Germany. According to the Interior Ministry 187,428 refugees have registered in Germany from Ukraine so far – but the real number is probably much higher.

Scholz pledged more funding to districts across Germany to help support people. A working group is to draw up a plan on this front by April 7th.

The Chancellor also emphasised that the invasion of Ukraine was “Putin’s war”. He said it was completely unacceptable for there to be any hostility against Russian people. 

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