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Political queue as Germany lifts coronavirus restrictions

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Students wear masks at a university in Germany – Rolf Vennenbernd /DPA

Germany is set to lift almost all remaining coronavirus restrictions this weekend amid a major political row.

The German parliament approved a motion by Olaf Scholz’s government to end the restrictions by a majority of more than 100 on Friday.

But regional leaders denounced the move as “unspeakable” and “risky” and accused the national government of forcing it through without consulting them.

Amid a rapid rise in infections, an opinion poll found nearly two-thirds of Germans want to comply with the current rules.

Kark Lauterbach, the health minister, told parliament that it was too early for Germany to talk of a “Freedom Day”.

But under measures approved Friday, nearly all current restrictions will be lifted.

The requirement to show proof of vaccination or a negative test to enter pubs and restaurants will be removed.

German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach speaks during a plenary session of the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, in Berlin, Germany, March 17, 2022. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner - LISI NIESNER /REUTERS

German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach speaks during a plenary session of the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, in Berlin, Germany, March 17, 2022. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner – LISI NIESNER /REUTERS

Masks, currently mandatory in all indoor public places, will in future only be mandatory on public transport.

“We cannot continue to restrict the whole country to protect a small group of people who are not willing to be vaccinated,” Lauterbach told Parliament.

The government is going ahead with the measure despite soaring infection rates that saw Germany record an all-time high of 297,845 new cases of the virus in just 24 hours on Friday.

The ministers argue that the lower risk of hospitalization and death from the omicron variant justifies the measures.

But the decision provoked the fury of regional leaders who say they were not consulted or given a choice in the matter.

“Removing the face mask requirement goes against expert advice and is wrong,” said Malu Dreyer, regional chief minister for Rhineland-Palatinate.

“The path that is being taken is not good. It can be shown that the pandemic is not over and will not end at the beginning of April either,” said Stefan Weil, Prime Minister of Lower Saxony.

Regional governments have the option of keeping existing rules under a transition period until April 2, and will then have the power to impose local restrictions in “hot spots” with a high infection rate.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by CLEMENS BILAN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (12853464t) The mayor of Bremen, Andreas Bovenschulte, delivers a speech during a session of the German parliament in Berlin, Germany, on March 17, 2022. Parliamentarians are expected to Germans discuss the compulsory covid-19 vaccination, among other topics.  Session of the German parliament in Berlin, Germany - March 17, 2022 - CLEMENS BILAN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Mandatory Credit: Photo by CLEMENS BILAN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (12853464t) The mayor of Bremen, Andreas Bovenschulte, delivers a speech during a session of the German parliament in Berlin, Germany, on March 17, 2022. Parliamentarians are expected to Germans discuss the compulsory covid-19 vaccination, among other topics. Session of the German parliament in Berlin, Germany – March 17, 2022 – CLEMENS BILAN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

But they accused the national government of abandoning responsibility and passing the buck to them.

“It’s a slap in the face. I want to fight the pandemic,” said Bodo Ramelow, Prime Minister of Thuringia.

Volker Bouffier, the Hessian prime minister, described the fallout as a “low point” in relations between the national government and the regions.

“The procedure is indescribable and undignified. There was no vote at all,” she said.

Regional leaders have public support, according to a new opinion poll for Spiegel magazine by the Civey institute, which found 65 percent of Germans believe existing measures should be extended.

The opposition Christian Democratic Party (CDU) condemned the new rules, describing them as “confusing”.

There are reports of divisions within the coalition government, opposed by some members of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens.

Hesse State Premier Volker Bouffier speaks during a ceremony to commemorate the victims of the Hanau racist attack on February 19, 2022 at the cemetery in Hanau, western Germany. – The Hanau shootings occurred two years ago, on February 19, 2020, when a German gunman killed nine people by opening fire in two bars in the city of Hanau, near Frankfurt am Main. The 43-year-old man was later found dead next to his mother’s body in his home, leaving behind a 24-page xenophobic “manifesto.” (Photo by Boris Roessler / POOL / AFP) (Photo by BORIS ROESSLER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) – BORIS ROESSLER /AFP

The centre-right Free Democrats (FDP), who control the Justice Ministry, are believed to have been a driving force behind the change.

Christine Aschenberg-Dugnus, the party’s health spokeswoman, defended the new rules as “an important step towards normality”.

“Of course the pandemic is not over,” he said. “But there is a difference whether the young or the old get infected, and this difference should also be reflected in the rules.”

Meanwhile, plans to make coronavirus vaccination mandatory appear stalled. Scholz said he was in favor of it last year, and the opinion poll found that 60 percent of Germans still support making the jab mandatory.

But cross-party attempts to draft a law have been mired in disagreement and appear far from fruitful.

Austria, the first European country to impose compulsory vaccination, has already suspended the law on the grounds that the virus no longer poses the same danger.


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