Angela Merkel moved a step closer to seizing full control of Germany’s pandemic response after her Cabinet approved legislation handing Berlin more power to impose nationwide restrictions.
The law, which updates existing legislation, requires approval from both houses of parliament.
Germany’s Chancellor pushed for the change after some of the country’s 16 states failed to implement curbs they had agreed with her government to impose.
Under the country’s federal system, states are responsible for health rules. The new law would create the ability for Berlin to impose restrictions unilaterally on regions with high rates of infection.
Mrs Merkel urged MPs to back the new law and spoke of her fears for Germany’s health system.
“The uniform, nationwide emergency brake is overdue because even though it’s difficult to hear this again, the situation is serious and all of us have to take it seriously,” she said.
“The third wave of the pandemic holds our country firmly in its grip. That’s clear from the daily figures of the Robert Koch Institute, the reproduction value, and most of all the number of intensive care unit beds in use. I have always said that if we were to wait until all the intensive care beds were occupied, then it would be too late. We cannot let that happen.”
According to a draft, an “emergency brake” would be introduced if the number of new infections per 100,000 residents in urban area exceeded 100 for three consecutive days.
Measures could include a curfew between 9pm and 5am, a limit on private gatherings to one household plus one other person, and the closure of schools, theatres, museums, zoos and non-essential shops.
Germany is struggling to control a resurgence of the virus and local officials are hesitant to impose new measures only months before national elections. The deadlock came to a head when Mrs Merkel apologised after withdrawing plans for a hard lockdown over the Easter weekend.
The number of daily infections on Tuesday rose to 140.9 per 100,000 people, the highest in nearly three months, Robert Koch Institute figures showed.
On Tuesday, Germany reported 10,810 new cases and 294 deaths from Covid-19 within the most recent 24-hour reporting period.
The spread comes despite its accelerating vaccination campaign, which hit a daily record last week.
Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the new law would make it easier for the government to control the pandemic.
“This will create uniform rules for Germany on what to do when the infection numbers rise,” he said.
“We have a good chance of putting the pandemic behind us in the summer once millions of citizens have been vaccinated, but we must prevent this from being significantly delayed by rising infections. These are regulations that are necessary, that are right and that are easy to grasp.”
Some officials questioned whether the law was needed and raised doubts about its compatibility with Germany’s constitutional rules on power-sharing between federal and regional governments.
Mrs Merkel’s Cabinet also approved a regulation requiring businesses to offer Covid-19 tests to employees on site.
The requirement had been voluntary, with about 60 per cent of companies complying, but the government said that was not enough and from Monday, all companies must now provide tests.
Employers would have to pay for the testing as a contribution to the country’s battle against the pandemic, the German government said.