BERLIN (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged lawmakers on Friday to approve new powers that would allow her to force coronavirus lockdowns and curfews on areas with high infection rates, saying a majority of Germans were in favour of stricter measures.
“The third wave of the pandemic has our country firmly in its grip,” said Merkel, whose speech in parliament was interrupted by heckling from lawmakers of the far-right Alternative for Germany party opposed to lockdowns.
“Intensive care workers are sending one distress call after the other. Who are we to ignore their pleas?” Merkel said.
Her government wants parliament to change the Infection Protection Act to enable federal authorities to enforce restrictions even if regional leaders resist them, hoping to alleviate pressure on intensive care units.
The imposition of curfews and granting the federal government powers to force them on Germany’s 16 states has also drawn criticism from within Merkel’s conservative bloc, which opinion polls suggest will suffer their worst ever result in a September national election.
Unlike Britain and France, Germany has been reluctant to impose drastic limits on movement in a country fiercely protective of democratic freedoms due to its Nazi and Communist past.
Opponents of the lockdown have held demonstrations across Germany, but particularly in the former east, which is more supportive of the AfD. The far-right party says restrictions have failed to halt the pandemic and that they cause more damage to both the economy and people’s mental health.
Merkel acknowledged in her speech that the new powers were no bullet-proof solution to the pandemic, which she said could only be defeated with vaccinations.
AfD parliamentary leader Alice Weidel said the new measures were an unprecedented attack on basic democratic freedoms.
“The proposed amendments of the Infection Protection Act are an alarming document of an authoritarian state,” said Weidel. “This relapse into the authoritarian demon is coming from the chancellery and you, Madame Chancellor.”
Merkel gazed at her smartphone during most of Weidel’s speech.
(Reporting by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Maria Sheahan and Gareth Jones)