Parliament launches aid package

German parliament support the government's package of measures aimed at bolstering the economic and medical defences.

Parliament launches aid package

Berlin (dpa) - Lawmakers were convening under strict distancing measures in the German parliament on Wednesday to vote on a historic raft of spending measures aimed at bolstering the country's economic and medical defences against the coronavirus.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government announced on Monday plans to suspend Germany's so-called debt brake in a move expected to be passed in the Bundestag parliament.

The constitutional article limits structural net borrowing to 0.35 per cent of gross domestic product.

Lifting it would pave the way for a record supplementary budget of 156.3 billion euros (167 billion dollars) in new debt. The sum will cover both 122.8 billion euros in aid and an expected drop of around 33.5 billion euros in tax revenues.

The measures are set to go to the Bundesrat upper house on Friday, in an expedited legislative process aimed at providing urgent aid to families, tenants, employees, self-employed people and firms, as the coronavirus crisis wreaks havoc on the world economy.

Wednesday's sitting began with a 90-minute debate, with Merkel's deputy, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, speaking on her behalf because the chancellor herself is in home quarantine after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.

Scholz passed on Merkel's "regards from home office," before outlining the government's position: "Hard weeks lie ahead. And yet, we will overcome them."

The chancellor is doing well, her spokesman Steffen Seibert later said, adding that she is in close contact with her cabinet and staff.

Merkel's first test for coronavirus was negative, but further testing is planned, Seibert said.

More than 33,200 cases of coronavirus infection have been confirmed in Germany so far, according to dpa's own research. More than 160 of those cases were fatal.

The relatively low death toll compared to countries such as Italy, the worst-hit nation in the global pandemic, has sparked speculation as to the potential reasons, including Germany's aggressive testing strategy and its relatively well-prepared intensive-care system.

In its latest briefing, the government's disease control agency said it was too early to say whether Germany was slowing the viral spread, after figures earlier in the week appeared to show a flattening in the growth curve regarding new cases.

However, Robert Koch Institute President Lothar Wieler warned against complacency. "We must wait further in order to see whether the measures are working," he said, adding that Germany is still in the early stages of an epidemic.

Germans have been urged to stay at home and only leave the house where necessary to buy food or run important errands.