Merkel in tug-of-war with states over virus safety rules

Berlin (AFP) –


A power struggle between Chancellor Angela Merkel and two German states over coronavirus rules erupted Monday as Berlin sought to extend social distancing restrictions by another month against a regional revolt.

A draft policy document from Merkel's office seen by AFP showed that the German government aims to impose existing safety rules until at least July 5 to keep the coronavirus outbreak under control.

The working paper would prolong by a month existing contact restrictions "to maintain a distance of 1.5 metres (five feet)" between people, prevent large gatherings and "require masks in certain public areas" such as shops and buses.

The policy directive, until now hammered out in coordination between the federal government and the states, came as two eastern regions announced a drastic loosening of measures from June 6 in defiance of Berlin's guidelines.

Thuringia and Saxony in the ex-communist east of the country, both states with low infection rates, said they would "open up everything" with few exceptions, while monitoring for new outbreaks.

Under Germany's federalist system, the 16 regional states have far more leeway to set policy than in more centrally governed countries such as Britain and France.

Merkel has been widely praised for keeping the coronavirus death rate in particular far lower than in many countries worldwide, even as she faced impatience from state premiers to accelerate the opening up of Europe's top economy.

In light of the latest dispute, Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said the government rules must remain "binding" and defended her approach, calling it a careful balancing of "courageous and cautious" policies.

"This is what got us to the point where we can even pursue opening up and loosening several of the rules in the first place," he said.

The policy draft seen by AFP indicated that even as current measures would remain in place, groups of 10 people from two households would be allowed to gather indoors across Germany from June 6.

- 'Paradigm change' -

Pressure has grown especially from regions less impacted by the virus to abandon national guidelines and give cities and towns the power to set the rules, while relying on "personal responsibility" for social distancing.

"I didn't say that people should start hugging each other or take off their masks to kiss each other," Thuringia premier Bodo Ramelow told public broadcaster MDR.

But he said it made "no sense" to maintain crisis measures when half of the districts in his state hadn't reported any new infections in the last three weeks.

Local health and safety offices should be given the power to monitor for outbreaks and react accordingly with the support of state authorities, he added.

Following Thuringia's lead, officials in Saxony said they were also ready for a "paradigm change" in the battle against the virus.

"Instead of imposing general rules and then allowing a lot of exceptions, essentially everything will be opened up and only a few exceptions will be made for what is not possible," regional health minister Petra Koepping said.

The announcements sparked anger and alarm in Merkel's ruling coalition.

Health Minister Jens Spahn warned that such moves ran the risk of convincing Germans they could drop their guard.

"You must not create the impression that the pandemic is over," he told the Bild tabloid.

Lars Klingbeil, general secretary of the Social Democrats, junior partners in the coalition, accused Ramelow in particular of pandering to extremist critics of the safety measures who have staged loud protests in recent weeks.

"I expect politicians to lead and provide orientation and not be led by a few thousand people with conspiracy theories standing up in public squares," he told Bild.