Narrow majority votes tighter CovidCheck into law

View of Luxembourg’s Chamber of Deputies where the coalition parties hold 31 out of 60 seats Library photo: Romain Gamba

View of Luxembourg’s Chamber of Deputies where the coalition parties hold 31 out of 60 seats Library photo: Romain Gamba

The coalition parties on Monday passed the latest round of covid-19 laws--tightening CovidCheck and allowing companies to enforce the system--with a wafer-thin majority of one vote.

The three ruling parties--the DP, LSAP and Déi Gréng--hold 31 out of 60 seats in parliament, enough to pass the hotly contested new covid-19 restrictions into law just after noon on Monday.

“The silent majority, the people who are vaccinated, also have rights,” said Gilles Baum (DP) about the new laws.

These tighten the CovidCheck regime, requiring it across the hospitality sector. This means restaurants will no longer be exempt from scanning test, vaccination or immunity certificates from customers when they seat tables of a maximum of four people. Self-tests on site are also being scrapped.

At the same time, the law allows employers to make CovidCheck mandatory at the workplace, leaving it largely up to companies how they will implement the system, for example requiring it to access offices or only team meetings.

Members of parliament for more than three hours debated the rules on Monday morning, following widespread criticism from unions and other groups. Luxembourg’s state council last week had said the government was shirking responsibility by leaving it up to employers to implement CovidCheck. Unions have threatened a legal challenge over the laws.

If employees refuse to present a valid certificate this can be penalised under workplace health and safety rules, prompting official warnings, withdrawal of payment or even being fired.

“Vaccination is better than testing”

While lawmakers agreed that refusing to be vaccinated is a right, the opposition and majority parties were split on using CovidCheck to boost Luxembourg’s vaccination rate, which has largely stagnated over past weeks.

Around two-thirds of the population over 12 is vaccinated, not enough to allow for measures to be lifted. Prime minister Xavier Bettel (DP) had previously said that at least 80-85% of the population must be inoculated against the coronavirus for the government to consider lifting restrictions.

Sven Clement (Pirate Party) warned that the rules risked creating a pandemic of the poor who cannot afford to get tested. The government in September stopped its large-scale testing programme, meaning people have to pay out of pocket to get a PCR or certified rapid-antigen test.

People who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons receive testing vouchers and the age limit for CovidCheck has been lifted to 12 to exclude children not eligible for the vaccine.

“Vaccination is better than testing,” said Josée Losché (Déi Gréng), adding that hospitals risked becoming overwhelmed by a fourth virus wave compounded with flu season. “Our goal must be not to burden our hospitals,” said Georges Engel (LSAP), adding that it was clear from the beginning that the vaccine wouldn’t be able to provide 100% protection but at least prevent severe illness or death from covid-19.

Losché added we should look back at last year to remember what the pandemic looked like without vaccinations and urged lawmakers to look at the issue from those who are vaccinated and want to be able to enjoy greater freedoms.

But Claude Wiseler (CSV) said the government should have done more to raise awareness for vaccinations and provide more legal certainty for companies who risk being faced with lawsuits by employees sanctioned for refusing CovidCheck.

It will be up to Luxembourg’s courts to interpret the law in case of disputes, said labour minister Dan Kersch (LSAP), saying it would have been impossible to legislate for thousands of companies in the country, depending on their individual circumstances.

Split society

Outside of the Chamber of Deputies, protesters against the covid-19 restrictions gathered on Monday morning, many dressed in white. The so-called Marche Blanche movement has been gaining pace in Luxembourg over the past weeks and around 3,000 people gathered for a march last Friday.

“I am shocked by people saying that Luxembourg is a dictatorship,” said Baum, adding that members of parliament must stand up to people spreading falsehoods and conspiracy theories.

On the other hand, Natalie Oberweis (Déi Lénk) said the law was “unworthy of a democracy” by seeking to punish one part of society and punishing another. “We are not here for the vaccinated or the unvaccinated,” Oberweis said. “It’s about much more. It’s about general societal questions of rule of law, democracy and also cohesion,” she said.

Jeff Engelen (ADR) said the law violates basic freedoms, adding that the end does not justify the means. “This law will further split our society and weaken it,” he said.

Bettel last week had said he had received death threats after presenting the new measures.

At the same as tightening the CovidCheck regime, the new set of rules makes it easier to host large events. Up until now, any event with more than 300 guests under CovidCheck needed to follow a health concept negotiated with authorities. This number has now been raised to 2,000.

The new CovidCheck regime in the hospitality sector will become applicable from 1 November. The laws voted on Monday will remain in force until mid-December.