Meeting of the corona cabinet

Statement by the Federal Chancellor

Statement by the Federal Chancellor

Foto: Bundesregierung/Bergmann

CHANCELLOR MERKEL: Ladies and gentlemen, before I speak about another corona cabinet decision that is very important to me, I would like to comment briefly on the current situation. 

Over the last four weeks, that is, since the introduction of severe containment measures and social distancing, much has been achieved overall. In particular, efforts to bring infection rates under control have been successful to the extent that we have been able to stop exponential growth. The fact that the reproduction number now lies below 1 and that, for many days, we have more recovered individuals than new infections, has first and foremost been accomplished thanks to all our citizens who followed the rules with tremendous discipline and bore the restrictions with a great deal of patience. Today, once again, I want to whole-heartedly thank them for this.

So we have a growing number of recovered individuals and lower numbers of infections, and that can be credited to the social distancing measures. However, we must not let our attention stray for even one second and must bear in mind that we are still at the very beginning of the pandemic; this is the beginning, and we are a long way from being in the clear. I believe we must remind ourselves of this again and again, especially early this week, as we start to ease some of the containment measures. Of course, that’s hard to do. But as we lift some measures and ease restrictions, we simply don’t know exactly what the effect will be. That is why we must proceed step by step, slowly and cautiously. It would be a crying shame if we were to walk straight into a relapse and thereby jeopardise the first successes we’ve achieved. That is why we must not even for a moment become careless or reckless. We must not be lulled into the slightest false sense of security. It is incredibly important that we don’t become careless or have a false sense of security. Rather, we must remain alert and disciplined. When I say “we”, I mean all of us – every man, woman and child in this country.

I want to be perfectly clear: I know that many people are in very difficult circumstances. I know about the troubles that parents and children, and especially single parents, face. I see the troubles that restaurants and hotels are having, and I see how so many fear for the survival of their store, business or company. I also see the troubles faced by many artists who do not know what lies ahead. I see the expectations of churches and religious communities that want to offer their members more than online services, and the longing of the faithful to finally join in worship again with other believers. Of course, I see the urgent need to again be able to exercise the rights of free assembly and to demonstrate, and I know about the troubles faced by those who are already lonely and in these circumstances are more deeply lonely than before. This also means that, due to this pandemic, all individuals in our country – and all of us as a community – are making tremendous sacrifices. At the same time, however, I am convinced that the best way for us to address these challenges, and all of the troubles, hopes, desires and expectations we have, is for us to summon the strength we need to maintain severe and strict measures – especially at the outset of this pandemic.

I want to mention again that, last Wednesday, we reached a decision together with the Minister-Presidents to keep the rules in effect until at least 3 May, that is: maintaining one and a half metres distance when outside; being at home with the members of your own household only; visiting public spaces only with members of your household or with one other person who does not live in your household; no tourist travel, and basically no travel abroad.

I’ve made clear my concern, and my words of warning – namely, that we must proceed with great care at the beginning of this epidemic and that we must remain focused – and I continue to do so in all of my talks with the Minister-Presidents of the Länder. We have created some leeway for ourselves – the measures giving us this leeway are essentially being implemented by the Länder through general administrative acts and their authority under the Infection Protection Act – and we must remember that we should make most limited, not generous, use of this leeway. Otherwise, we might run the risk of losing control of the easing process. The current numbers that we see now on a daily basis are deceptive. We have started today what we have jointly agreed, namely to open some stores – but we will not know the impact of this on infection rates until 14 days from now – no earlier. That’s what makes this so difficult.

I believe that all of us – the Federation and the Länder, Minister-Presidents, citizens, myself and the Federal Government – we all have the common aim of preventing a new total shutdown and making sure that we don’t need to reinstate one. But that of course is what would be required if we were to have renewed exponential growth in infections. That would be inevitable, and it would also create an emergency situation for our hospitals – a situation we so far successfully avoided. That is precisely what we want to do, namely make sure that we prevent dramatic situations such as other countries are facing – because of course we don’t want to put people with pre existing conditions and the elderly at risk. However, we also don’t want to isolate them – some would say “lock them away” – for months. That wouldn’t be in line with our human values.

I firmly believe that preventing a setback – that is, our needing to reinstate harsher measures – is not only in the interest of fighting the pandemic, but also in the interest of aiding our economy and public life. Therefore I will not grow tired of pointing out and urging time and again that we must remain consistent and disciplined. The more clearly we can keep the reproduction number under one, the more – and more sustainably – we can return to public, societal and economic life. This, of course, is in our shared interest.

To effectively tackle this challenge, we must – and this is what all country’s experiences are telling us – be able to precisely trace every chain of infection. This means that every newly infected individual must be asked whom he or she was in contact with. All of these individuals must then be quarantined. We can only do this with precision if we strengthen the public health sector. The Federation and the Länder have already reached an agreement on 25 March regarding this effort – namely, that at least one five-member contact tracing team will be fielded for every 20,000 inhabitants.

We have just discussed this and decided that the Federal Ministry of Health will fund the training and deployment of 105 mobile teams to support public health services’ contact tracing and management efforts. This was today also discussed with the Länder.

As of 22 April, the Länder will require health authorities to report to their supervisory entities any shortfalls in their tracing capacities, so that we can remedy this. In Brandenburg, for example, the Bundeswehr will be helping with contact tracing. This after all does not require special health care knowledge, but rather putting phone banks into operation.

At the Robert Koch Institute, we will establish a 40 person service unit that will function as a point of contact for municipal public health services, so that each unit staff member can liaise with ten local health authorities.

That may sound very technical. But we know from South Korea and from other Asian countries that have addressed similar outbreaks that it is essential to precisely reconstruct the chains of infection – every single one, in fact. This way, we can truly slow the spread of the virus. Easing containment measures without improving contact tracing will not achieve the desired effect. As I said earlier, I want us to be able to keep lowering the reproduction number – as soon and, of course, as effectively as possible.

Thank you very much. That’s all for today.

QUESTION, SCHULER: Chancellor, it was reported that in a CDU leadership meeting today you spoke of “discussion orgies” about loosening lockdowns. Do you think that’s a fitting choice of words, considering that many people long to return to a normal life?

CHANCELLOR MERKEL: First of all, I can understand that this is what people want. I have just described this in great detail. I have stood here many times and said that I would like nothing better than to announce to everyone that we are making progress. And, indeed, we today saw that first steps have been taken.

But I also warned that this initial loosening of containment measures must not lead to overly rash action and a false sense of security, which 14 days from now would create an outcome that we all do not want. I firmly believe that. Because we know – and Mr Tschentscher recently used this image – that we are on thin ice. We know that if the reproduction number were just slightly above 1, then this would again lead to a situation in which our health care system could be overwhelmed. We need a balanced approach. On the one hand, we must not overburden our health care system, so that people can get the medical treatment they need. On the other hand, we of course want to loosen measures, wherever that’s possible. 

That’s the task we must accomplish. I should also say that it is the best way to guide ourselves through this very severe pandemic. That’s why I understand everyone’s concerns. But I also say that the best thing for us to do now is to proceed with caution, and not be careless.

QUESTION, DR DELFS: Chancellor, let me come back to that. You’ve just issued another strongly worded warning. What is it exactly that you find so worrying? Is it simply the fact that as of today shops are open again in many regions and the risk is thus increasing? 

Or do you have the feeling that the whole discussion at the moment is, to some extent, heading in the wrong direction? You’ve probably seen that for yourself. When you travel through Berlin and look at the parks, you’ll notice that there are quite a lot of people outside in this lovely weather. Isn’t it perhaps necessary to appeal to the public once more in a different way, with greater urgency? How can you convey this risk in concrete, practical terms?  

CHANCELLOR MERKEL: I myself was involved in the decision to re open shops of up to 800 square metres. That’s something we all agreed on. We presented this decision to you. 

However, I have the impression that a debate has started up since last Wednesday which implies a level of security which most certainly doesn’t yet exist today and about which none of us can say anything because we won’t know for another 14 days what the impact of these decisions will be. 

I have the impression that what we decided on Wednesday has perhaps pushed other things – the fact that only one person not living in any given household is allowed to spend time outside with those who do live in that household, but otherwise has to stay in their own household – into the background and that we have to remind ourselves that they are equally important. 

It goes without saying, for example, that the more liberal we make the regulation on the re opening of shops, the more people will say: well, if others are going to get almost everything they want, why am I getting nothing? 

I also understand the churches. The desire to hold religious services once more is, of course, quite legitimate. The task we all face is to allow our society to function again – but in an altered form due to the pandemic. After all, it will be a very long time before we have a vaccine. So I’m not singling out one sector which, as it were, gets all the rights. Rather, I’m trying to take the different sections of society forward and, to a degree, to fulfil the legitimate wishes of the Christians, Muslims and Jews in our country.

We also have to consider the legitimate wishes of parents. We have to reconcile all of this in a satisfactory manner without letting the number of contacts increase to the extent that it triggers another phase of exponential growth. 

I was indeed cautionary today in order to make it clear that although we’ve come a long way, we haven’t reached our goal yet. We’re not in the clear yet and we shouldn’t jeopardise everything that has been achieved. In my view, it would be a terrible shame if we were forced to announce a reversal of the decisions we’ve made. 

QUESTION, DUNZ: Chancellor, why do you think the debate started by the Minister-Presidents on the easing of containment measures is being pushed forward? Are they trying to outdo each other in order to enhance their positions in their own Länder? Is it due to the pressure exerted by business? 

Are you concerned that this will now actually cause distorted competition and uncertainty as to whether or not masks will become compulsory throughout the country? 

CHANCELLOR MERKEL: With regard to masks, we went much further the last time than we did on previous occasions. And more masks are available now. The situation has changed. One Land after another is saying: on public transport at least ... Where it’s not possible to keep a distance from others, more Länder or individual cities opted for this today. 

I believe that, all in all, the pressure is very considerable, and understandably so. That goes without saying. You hear artists, you hear parents. That’s also understandable. We’re witnessing a situation totally unlike any other we’ve experienced since the Second World War. 

Of course, everyone is thinking about what constitutes acting responsibly and what doesn’t. It may be a mistake to move forward too quickly. That’s what concerns me. I’d like to continue the balanced approach we’ve adopted so far. For example, at no point in time have parks been closed here in Germany. They were closed in Austria and they’re still closed in France. People are not allowed to enter parks in Italy. Here in Germany, we’ve always been permitted to go outside, and not just for an hour or two. I don’t want to jeopardise the successful approach we've been following together. That’s the point I want to make. 

Nevertheless, I also see the hardship suffered by others, also of those groups who, of course, say: why am I still not allowed to work when others are allowed to sell?   We always have to state reasons and we certainly also have to engage in discussion. I’m not opposed to a debate in society about this. As Chancellor, however, I feel I also have a duty to put forward my position in this debate. One point I’d like to make is that the Leopoldina, which discussed the easing of the containment measures and its impact, has always said that we have to be able to trace every chain of infection. 

To be honest, we can’t do that yet. I would prefer it if it were already possible. Therefore, we not only have to ease the containment measures but, secondly, we also have to meticulously trace the chains of infection. And we have to do this in every single individual case. 

QUESTION: Chancellor, Federal Development Minister Müller called on the Chinese Government to make available information on possible incidents in laboratories in Wuhan. Was that agreed upon within the Federal Government? What’s your view on this? 

CHANCELLOR MERKEL: No, it wasn’t agreed upon. We didn’t talk about it within the Government. 

This discussion has been around for quite some time now. I believe the more transparent China is about the origin of this virus, the more everyone around the world will be able to learn from it. However, we haven’t had a specific discussion about this. 

QUESTION, BLANK: Chancellor, you’ve just mentioned the difficult position facing people, citizens as well as businesses or restaurants. Various points are currently being discussed: lowering the VAT rate or raising reduced hours compensation for restaurants. What’s your position on these points? Does there perhaps have to be a coalition committee on Wednesday evening to find a way forward? 

CHANCELLOR MERKEL: I’m sure we’ll talk about these issues in the coalition committee. But we have to make sure now that we don’t adopt a measure one week and then another the following week. Rather, we have to reconsider where we stand now. We have to think about where the problems lie. That could be the case when cafés or restaurants are allowed to re open one day. That’s not the key issue at present. That may and will perhaps be the case with regard to reduced hours compensation, although circumstances vary greatly there, too. For example, there are people with a very low income in the catering sector or in the services sector as a whole. However, there are also companies in sectors covered by collective agreements which are topping up salaries to 100%. We have artists and many others. That’s why I think that we will certainly talk about this on Wednesday: In what areas do we perhaps still have to consider taking action? 

Of course, the measures haven’t been in force long. We have to take care now to gain a general overview of the situation and to avoid focusing on one particular group at too frequent intervals. 

QUESTION, WILP: Chancellor, you always say that South Korea has dealt with the pandemic in an exemplary fashion and hold it up as a role model. Why isn’t the wearing of masks compulsory all over Germany? You mentioned that individual Länder and cities have led the way. But I don’t feel that your position has become quite clear.

Allow me to ask a second question. You are also affected by the measures. May I ask you how you spent your weekend? Did you venture outside? Were you in Berlin, or perhaps in the Uckermark?

CHANCELLOR MERKEL: I’m not going to say where I spend every minute of the day. But I certainly abide by all the rules which have been, or will be, imposed.

As for masks: first of all, they are not the responsibility of the Federal Government. But I’m not trying to avoid answering the question. We said that community masks may be helpful if they’re worn correctly. Let me repeat what correct use entails: they shouldn’t be worn for many days in a row, they have to be washed often in hot water or the viruses have to be killed in another way. We then also have to make sure – and this is very different to the situation four weeks ago – that we can provide every citizen obliged to wear a mask with at least one if not several such masks. To a certain extent, that will determine when such a step is taken. What’s more, we then have to consider where wearing a mask is now necessary. I don’t know whether I really need to wear one when I go for a walk on my own in the park if I keep far enough away from others. But when I’m on public transport there are good reasons to expect people to wear masks provided sufficient quantities are available.

QUESTION, DR RINKE: Chancellor, on Thursday you’re taking part in another EU video conference. There are now proposals for compromises in the dispute over how to help those countries hit particularly hard by the coronavirus, namely that this could be achieved via the EU budget and EU bonds. Do you see that as a feasible way to help Italy or Spain, for example?

CHANCELLOR MERKEL: We have now found an instrument in Article 122 (2) which allows us to pass on bonds for countries by means of guarantees from member states. They can then be used, for example, to finance reduced hours compensation. I can also envisage further instruments of this kind. In general, I’d like to make it clear that Germany is keen to demonstrate solidarity and will indeed do so. However, this must take place within the framework of the current treaties and must, of course, take into account the fact that all countries and all member states of the European Union got into this situation through no fault of their own. We have been hit by a pandemic. This is not the result of failings in economic policy or anything else. Furthermore, I always say that Germany will only fare well in the long term if Europe fares well. Our desire to see Europe as a whole do well is therefore not just about solidarity but also in our own interest – both in equal measure. Our actions will be guided by that. That’s why it pains me that I have to keep stressing this. For me, it’s a given. 

The Finance Ministers have adopted a package to the tune of 500 billion euros which now has to be implemented. I can very well imagine that the budget will not look like it did the last time we met in Brussels to discuss the medium-term financial outlook. I believe that goes for everyone. This budget will be different. I would assume that it will have to have very different financial dimensions in the first years following the pandemic. However, this, too, must remain within the scope of the current treaties. We can also discuss new treaties, but we would need two or three years to find solutions. Yet we will need quick answers to this pandemic. Germany will participate in solutions based on the principle of solidarity – beyond the 500 billion euros already earmarked.

Thank you very much!