Germany will expand COVID-19 testing requirements for non-vaccinated people and end free tests to prod more residents to roll up their sleeves.
Starting later this month, negative results will be required for people who haven’t been inoculated or can show they’ve recovered from the disease to eat in restaurants, go to the hairdresser and attend sporting events. The government will no longer pay for antigen tests as of Oct. 11.
“Immunization rates have slowed considerably,” and getting vaccinated is a contribution that everyone can make, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday after talks with premiers of the country’s 16 states. “We want to avoid hard measures as much as possible.”
Her administration is looking to head off another lockdown that would put renewed strain on Europe’s biggest economy. For people on the fence, the end of free testing could be a strong motivation to get shots to avoid the extra cost.
Read: Thanks to the Delta variant, the threshold for herd immunity is now even higher
While people can choose not to get immunized, “as long as vaccines are effective, we can’t tell vaccinated people that they can’t fully exercise their rights as citizens,” Merkel said.
But with less than seven weeks before the national election, the move risks hardening the resistance of people who oppose pandemic restrictions and reject vaccination. The far-right Alternative for Germany has been seeking to lure such voters.
“The government is trampling our constitution,” Stephan Brandner, deputy chair of the party, said on Twitter following Tuesday’s decisions, adding that his party will continue to fight for “freedom and unity.”
Merkel’s government will also seek parliamentary approval to extend its pandemic powers beyond September as the more-contagious delta variant spreads and stokes concerns about a fourth wave.
Aid for businesses hit by the pandemic, which was also due to run out next month, will be prolonged until the end of the year.
Germany’s contagion rate has more than quadrupled in recent weeks, while its vaccine drive loses steam. Merkel said the target is to fully inoculate 75% of the population, boosting the level from about 55% now.
Germany has slipped behind its neighbors, with more than 58% immunized in France and nearly 62% in Spain, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.
The agreement to raise pressure to get shots could help Armin Laschet, the front-runner to succeed Merkel as chancellor. The premier of North Rhine-Westphalia pushed for such a program ahead of the meeting to bolster his image as a crisis manager as his campaign falters.
Laschet — the 60-year-old chairman of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union — has been under pressure to regain the initiative after a rocky several weeks hit the conservative bloc’s support. Its lead over the Greens has shrunk to as little as two percentage points in one survey.
In a Forsa poll for RTL/ntv published Wednesday, backing for the CDU/CSU alliance slumped by three percentage points to 23%, the lowest since early May. The Greens were unchanged on 20% in second place, while the SPD, whose chancellor candidate is Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, gained three points to 19% in third.
Last Wednesday, Laschet postponed the official start of his campaign to deal with the aftermath of floods that hit his region last month. He was pilloried for chuckling on camera amid the wreckage, and while he later apologized, the incident sparked a slide in the polls.
The latest Forsa survey showed that only 12% of those polled would pick Laschet if Germans could vote directly for chancellor, compared with 26% for Scholz and 16% for Greens’ candidate Annalena Baerbock.
Merkel and state officials on Tuesday also signed off on a 30 billion-euro ($35 billion) fund to help pay for reconstruction from the flooding disaster.
The money includes 2 billion euros for affected federal buildings. The rest will be split between national and state governments, with financing extending over the next 30 years.
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