Germany to tighten national virus law amid case surge
People walk under blooming cherry trees at the Heerstrasse street in Bonn, western Germany on April 9, 2021. AFP
German leaders have agreed to tighten the national coronavirus law, the government said Friday, in a move to hand Berlin more centralised power in the face of a stalemate over lockdown measures.
"Germany is in the middle of a third wave, so the federal government and the states have agreed to add to the national legislation," Chancellor Angela Merkel's deputy spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer told reporters.
"The aim here is to create uniform national rules," she said, adding that the law change would be put before cabinet next Tuesday.
Germany remains gripped by rising infection rates, despite cultural venues, restaurants and leisure facilities having been closed for months. Health authorities warned Friday that hospitals could become overwhelmed without tougher national measures.
Currently coronavirus measures are decided on in consultation with Berlin and -- in theory -- implemented by the federal states.
Yet regional and national leaders are divided over restrictions, with Merkel calling for a tighter lockdown as some regions and cities unilaterally ease restrictions.
With no sign of consensus, Demmer confirmed media reports that talks between Merkel and state premiers planned for Monday had been cancelled.
The regular meetings have until now set policy for Germany's fight against the coronavirus pandemic but 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 cases per 100,000 people.
Demmer said the law change would help impose this "emergency brake" nationwide.
"The solution we have found was necessary because the emergency brake was being applied in very different ways," she said.
According to Germany's most widely read newspaper Bild, the proposed adjustments to the law would also require night-time curfews and some school closures in especially hard-hit areas.
Calls to change the law had been growing over the last week amid rising case numbers, and warnings from health authorities on Friday that stronger restrictions were essential.
"We need a lockdown in order to break this wave," said Health Minister Jens Spahn, saying that tougher measures could provide a "bridge" to an eventual reopening of public life.
Official figures on Friday showed 25,464 new cases in the past 24 hours, while intensive care doctors warned that hospitals could soon be inundated.
"We are profoundly concerned about the current situation," said Gernot Marx, president of Germany's intensive medicine association DIVI.
"We are on the brink of overwhelming our health system," he added, explaining that Germany currently had only 3,000 free intensive care beds after a "dramatic rise" in admissions in recent weeks.
In an "urgent appeal" to political leaders, he called for a "hard lockdown of two to three weeks".
The head of the Robert Koch Institute infectious disease agency, Lothar Wieler, also called for tighter measures in the face of a "very serious situation".
"If we don't go into lockdown, a lot of people will lose their lives," he said.