Full of fresh optimism, the three parties of the intended German traffic light coalition presented themselves at the beginning of October. SPD, Greens and FDP would bring renewal and modernization after 16 years of Angela Merkel. A lingering pandemic clearly played no part in the plans. A month and a half later, high corona figures and disagreements about the measures are making it difficult to form the new German government.
Until recently it looked different. Just last week, the parties of the traffic light coalition wanted to lift the ‘epidemic emergency’ as soon as possible. FDP’s Marco Buschmann called this “an important goal of the FDP, for freedom, civil rights and the separation of powers” three weeks ago. The FDP would like to take the lead in liberalizing the corona measures.
A month ago, Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) also believed that the state of exception could already be ended at the end of November, supported by the Robert-Koch Institute, the German RIVM. The institute considered the risk of overloading the health system to be small, because a minority of unvaccinated people in particular would have been assigned to intensive care.
But these days, the number of corona infections is rising to a level that Germany has not yet experienced in the entire pandemic. Every day the record number of infections from the previous day is broken. In the past seven days, a total of almost 260,000 people became infected, which is 312 infections per 100,000 inhabitants. On Monday, 265 people died of corona in 24 hours. In states where the infection rate is highest, such as in Saxony, Thuringia, Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, where in some municipalities more than a thousand inhabitants per 100,000 became infected in one week, the hospitals are loaded to the maximum. In Germany as a whole, only 14 percent of the beds are available on ICs.
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On Tuesday morning, Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder said: “If the apocalypse starts at ten, we are now at nine.”
Just as the Robert-Koch Institute and the outgoing Health Minister Spahn are surprised by the new wave of disease, the parties of the coalition in the making do not seem to have taken into account a new corona crisis. It became painfully clear on Monday that the parties, which hope to elect Olaf Scholz (SPD) as chancellor in early December, have not yet agreed on a clear corona policy. Greens party leader Katrin Göring-Eckardt said on Monday that the new coalition wants to introduce mandatory vaccinations for certain professions, such as nurses or daycare workers. A few hours later, Göring-Eckhardt had to go back on her words: there is no consensus among the three parties about the partial vaccination obligation.
If the apocalypse starts at ten, we’re now at nine
Markus Söder Prime Minister of Bavaria
Such a vaccination obligation is at odds with the FDP line. The liberals find themselves in a difficult position: they campaigned with a promise of more freedom and more personal responsibility, but are now confronted with a situation before the formation is complete in which there can be no question of more freedom. And several Greens politicians have shown their strict side in recent days. Co-Chairman Robert Habeck said on Sunday evening in daily News that he thinks a lockdown for unvaccinated people is a conceivable scenario.
The three parties seem to agree on a 3G rule in public transport. A bus or train ride is then only possible with a negative test, vaccination certificate or proof of recovery. Transport companies immediately stated that this is a practically unfeasible measure.
The flare-up of the pandemic comes at a politically unfavorable time in Germany. Angela Merkel is in her last weeks as chancellor and is especially busy internationally. On Monday she spoke to Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko about the crisis on Poland’s eastern border, and last week she telephoned Russian President Vladimir Putin twice. In Germany health policy is largely organized at the federal level and each federal state has its own rules.
Consultations between the state ministers and the chancellor were postponed for two weeks at the request of the negotiators of the traffic light coalition because the headstrong course of some state ministers may complicate the negotiations. For example, Winfried Kretschmann, the Green Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg, where the virus is rampant, is in favor of maintaining the “epidemic emergency”, which the FDP would rather not hear. In Baden-Württemberg, ‘2G’ will also apply from Wednesday, just like in six other of the sixteen German federal states.
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A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 17, 2021