FEDERAL CHANCELLOR MERKEL: Ladies and gentlemen, we have focused most intensively in recent days on our meeting today, and today we held discussions via video conference regarding where our country stands with respect to the coronavirus epidemic. I’d like to thank the Länder for keeping to the common approach that we adopted and that we agreed today to also shape the next phase together.
What guided our discussions today? – I’d like first of all to take this opportunity to thank all the people in Germany most sincerely once again, members of the public who have upended their lives, who have forgone social contacts, who are restricting their activities – not because they want to do the government a favour, but because they want to help their fellow human beings. Despite all of the restrictions, our country is witnessing something very strong and important at the moment. It also shows that if something genuinely good is to emerge in our country, in Germany, then this is thanks to its citizens, and I’m grateful for this.
We have achieved something – and this was also confirmed by the Robert Koch Institute today – that was far from a given at the outset, namely that our doctors, our carers, and everyone working in the medical field in hospitals weren’t overwhelmed. These people are making an incredible contribution, and many are working under the greatest possible strain. But we have managed to keep our healthcare system going. I’d like to offer my most sincere thanks to all those working in the healthcare field, including practising doctors and the many people working in this area – and also in retirement homes and similar institutions.
Of course, I’m also thinking right now of those who have been infected, who are sick with the coronavirus or who have already been through this experience. We’re also aware that many people have sadly already succumbed to the virus here.
What we have achieved is an interim success, no more and no less. Allow me to emphasise that it is a fragile interim success. Mr Wieler from the Robert Koch Institute reminded us of this once again today. We have managed to steer the factors that allow us to draw conclusions in a positive direction. But we also don’t have much room for manoeuvre, but must continue down this path with all due concentration. In our discussions, we therefore concluded that we must not rush carelessly ahead, even with the best of intentions, but rather that we must acknowledge that we have to live with the virus for as long as there is no medicine and, in particular, no vaccine. We must safeguard the successes that we have achieved. This is why we, when talking about which steps we’re taking towards permitting slightly more public life, steps that we all want to take, we also have to say that we must exercise extreme caution in all this, and this is something that characterised our discussions today. After all, this is about people in each case.
We have agreed – based, of course, on the decisions that we made on 12, 16 and 22 March 2020 – that it continues to be vital that members of the public keep a minimum distance of 1.5 metres from one another in public and that they either be in such places alone, with one further person not living in their household or accompanied by members of their own household. This continues to apply, and violations of this will continue to be prosecuted by the authorities responsible for public order.
With regard to identifying chains of infection rapidly in the future, one thing is most important to me, and I’d like to thank the Länder that have already beefed up their health authorities to a large extent. When permitting more public life by taking small steps now, then it’s important for us to be able to trace chains of infection even more effectively. Our objective must be to be in a position to trace each and every chain of infection. We’re working on an app to this end. However, this is, above all, a task for the health authorities. If we can do that, then we can isolate infection hotspots, and then relaxing measures restricting public life is no longer such a serious issue because we know where infection hotspots are emerging. If we don’t have such tools at our disposal, then we won’t be as successful, and that’s why this is so vitally important.
Naturally, we want to have a good supply with testing capacities. We want to work on medical protective equipment. We spoke in great depth about the question of masks for everyday use and want to state that it is advisable, that is to say, highly recommended, to use these basic masks on public transport and in shops. I believe that is an important point which has now also been further developed in our decisions. We will therefore strongly recommend that members of the public wear masks for everyday use, especially when taking public transport or shopping. We believe that we will now receive more of these basic masks as time goes on and that this should then also help to protect others and, if a lot of people use these masks, to protect oneself.
We discussed care and retirement homes. It will be very important that we draw up individual concepts so that people in these homes are not socially isolated, but safety standards are still maintained.
Naturally, we talked in detail about kindergartens, schools and universities. I know how many people in Germany are currently following this discussion, as it is naturally a very, very difficult situation for parents that their children cannot meet their friends, that there is only emergency childcare and that the vast majority of children are at home. Nevertheless, we need to be very cautious here and take it step by step in order to maintain the requirements for infection control and to safeguard human lives. We achieved this today by first primarily concentrating on the school-leaving classes, those who have to take exams, and in a next step, on those who have exams later on or will be moving up to a new school. The Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder will provide us with a detailed concept, as will the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Youth Affairs. We can only gradually address specific school matters after 4 May. There needs to be smaller classes. There needs to be a school bus concept. There needs to be a concept for breaks. In other words, a huge amount of logistical work will be required. That is why intensive groundwork is necessary.
I know how hard this is for parents. But I believe it is simply necessary if we say that “we need to live with this virus in the pandemic”, and that is in fact how things currently look.
Hairdressing salons also need to draw up a hygiene concept. They will be able to reopen from 4 May if sufficient protective measures are in place.
We discussed the precious asset of freedom of religion, as well as the events organised by the churches. I would like to say a big thank-you to the churches for really showing a lot of imagination, especially just now over Easter, although no services could be held, to enable people to practise their faith. We want religious celebrations, events and gatherings by other faith groups to remain cancelled for the meantime. But before the end of the week, there will be talks with the Minister-Presidents and the Federal Minister of the Interior on the question of how to agree a path for the next steps.
It is important that we have not prohibited economic activity as a whole, but instead only where there are visitors. Naturally, we spoke in great depth about the question of opening more shops. On the one hand, we said that shops of up to 800m² can open, although there will need to be good concepts on the use of these shops, as well as hygiene concepts. We also have to ensure that large queues do not form on the streets. That is also something for which shops will be responsible. A lot of preparation will be needed here, too.
We will invest a great deal in research - we all agree on that - not least to play our part, to do even more research to see how many people already had this infection, to see how we can contribute to developing a vaccine and which medicines are important. I can say that on the Federation side in particular, we are providing very generous financial support and doing everything we can so that the German research sector can play its part in overcoming this pandemic.
Finally, we will deal with further developments every two weeks. We want to see what impact the relaxing of measures we looked at today has in the development of infections. That means we will speak again on 30 April about what happens after 3 May. The time frame we looked at today is the period between 20 April and 3 May. We will then take further steps.
It will depend entirely on how the infection rates develop. I already said that we do not have a lot of scope to play around with. ‑ That is why I hope everyone will continue doing their part and will observe the regulations. All that will enable us to gradually have a little bit more of the public life we are used to, but in a pandemic, after all, so that means a different sort of public life with different rules.