BERLIN (Reuters) -Germany’s likely new chancellor Olaf Scholz urged more citizens to get vaccinated against COVID-19 on Thursday as the parliament debated new rules to tackle a fourth wave of infections without imposing lockdowns or making shots mandatory for anyone.
The three parties negotiating to form Germany’s new government have agreed to let a state of emergency in place since the start of the pandemic expire on Nov. 25, despite record new cases as colder weather and more indoor gatherings turn Europe once more into a coronavirus hotspot.
Some German politicians considered the state of emergency, which allows the government to bypass parliament, was no longer necessary given the vaccination drive and the need to create a new normality in Europe’s largest economy.
Instead the would-be three-way coalition has proposed legislation allowing existing hygiene measures, such as compulsory face masks in indoor public spaces, to be enforced and tightened – without extending to the lockdowns and curfews deployed in previous waves of infection.
The parties also want to re-open vaccination centres and reinstate free COVID-19 tests, Scholz said in a speech opening the debate on the law in the Bundestag lower house of parliament.
Free tests had been phased out in a bid to incentivise more citizens to get their COVID-19 shots, but the vaccination level has flatlined at around 67% in recent weeks and supporters point out that even those who are vaccinated can contract and transmit the virus.
“We must prepare our country for winter,” said Scholz, acting finance minister and chancellor candidate of the centre-left Social Democrats that came first in September’s election.
Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, who did not stand for re-election in September’s vote, watched on from the auditorium.
Scholz said workers in care homes should get tested daily to avoid the tragedy of past waves. Vaccines are not mandatory for healthcare and care home workers in Germany, unlike in many other European countries.
The federal government and leaders of Germany’s 16 states would meet next week to discuss further measures to tackle the pandemic, said Scholz, who is expected to be voted in as chancellor in early December if coalition talks are successful.
He said he favoured measures such as requiring workplaces to check that staff be vaccinated, recovered or have tested negative for coronavirus.
Germany’s fourth COVID-19 wave is already stretching capacity in some hospitals, prompting doctors to say they will have to postpone scheduled surgeries and several states to tighten hygiene regulations.
In Saxony, for example, restaurant goers must now provide proof of vaccination or past infection – a negative test is no longer enough – and other German states are set to follow.
Germany’s public health authority Robert Koch Institute reported a record 50,196 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, the fourth day in a row it has posted a fresh daily high.
(Reporting by Emma Thomasson, Sarah Marsh and Michael Nienaber; Editing by Michael Perry, Toby Chopra and Alex Richardson)