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German lawmakers back new COVID measures after warnings of a ‘terrible Christmas’

A sign at a German train station says "Please keep at least 1.5 meter distance to other people."
A sign in English reminds people of ongoing coronavirus restrictions at a train station in Germany, where infections are rising sharply.
(Martin Meissner / Associated Press)

German lawmakers approved new measures Thursday to rein in record coronavirus infections after the head of Germany’s disease-control agency warned that the country could face a “really terrible Christmas.”

The measures passed in the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house, with votes from the center-left Social Democrats, the environmentalist Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats. The three parties are currently negotiating to form a new government.

The legislation includes requirements for employees to prove that they are vaccinated, recovered from COVID-19 or have tested negative for the coronavirus in order to access communal workplaces; a similar rule would apply to public transportation. The measures still need to be approved by Germany’s upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat.

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Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats had wanted to extend existing rules, set to expire this month, that have served as the basis for numerous national and statewide restrictions since March 2020. Under the new legislation, Germany’s 16 states would be able to impose restrictions on cultural and sports events only if their regional assemblies approve the measure. Merkel’s party said that would weaken the instruments at authorities’ disposal at a time when infections are soaring again.

The Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s disease-control agency, said Thursday that 65,371 newly confirmed cases had been reported in a single day, continuing the upward trend that experts have been warning about for weeks. Total deaths are nearing 100,000, with 264 reported Wednesday.

“We are currently heading toward a serious emergency,” institute director Lothar Wieler said during an online debate late Wednesday. “We are going to have a really terrible Christmas if we don’t take countermeasures now.”

Austria has taken what its leader calls the dramatic step of imposing a nationwide lockdown on residents who haven’t been inoculated against COVID-19.

Wieler said Germany needs to increase its vaccination rates to significantly above 75%, from 67.7% at present.

The eastern state of Saxony, which at 57.6% has the country’s lowest immunization rate, is poised to impose a limited lockdown in response to soaring case numbers. Gov. Michael Kretschmer said the state government would decide on a “hard and clear wave-breaker” Friday lasting two to three weeks.

Official figures show that Saxony had more than 761 newly confirmed cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the last week, the highest infection rate in Germany.

Germany’s independent vaccine advisory panel said Thursday that it is recommending booster shots for all people over 18. But it said people who are over 70, at risk for other reasons or who haven’t received any vaccine yet should be prioritized.

Wieler warned that hospitals across Germany are struggling to find beds for COVID-19 patients and those with other illnesses. Hospitals in the district of Rottal-Inn, in southeast Germany, appealed this week for nurses and doctors to get in touch, saying it could use the help of “every hand [to] cope with this difficult situation.”

Merkel was due to meet the governors of Germany’s 16 states Thursday to discuss joint efforts against the pandemic.


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