Meeting between Federal Chancellor Merkel and the Heads of Government of the Länder
CHANCELLOR MERKEL: Ladies and gentlemen, we have just had intensive and in-depth discussions. As you are aware, on 28 October 2020 we reached agreement on extensive restrictions in certain areas of public life that were scheduled to remain in place until the end of November. This means that we were able to take stock today, and our intention was to use this opportunity to see what we need to change, where we stand and what recommendations we want to issue.
Together, we have determined that the decisions reached in October, and possibly also those taken a few days previously, have not yet managed to reverse the trend – although we were able to break the spike in new infections. In recent days, the infection rate has remained constant; but we are still a long way from reaching the seven-day incidence of 50 per 100,000, which is a rate of infection that we consider to be traceable for the health authorities.
Nevertheless, we want to say that we are very grateful to everyone in Germany that we have indeed managed to reach this level. We did, after all, have strong exponential growth when we decided to impose these restrictions. We also want to specifically request and call on everyone to continue adhering to these rules; social distancing is the recipe for success – and we need more of it. We need to reduce the number of social contacts even more strongly so that we can achieve our goals.
We agreed that we are not in a position today to say what the current trend in terms of the number of infections will mean for the end of November. That is why the Federal Government will meet with the Heads of Government of the Länder again on 25 November. Then, we will not only take a decision on how to proceed after 30 November, but we will also look to the beginning of the new year and make a general assessment of the entire winter season – so that, to the extent this is possible, we can achieve some predictability in the general situation with regard to the COVID‑19 pandemic. This predictability is what we want to achieve. While there is no way to predict things one hundred percent, we want to provide some basis for planning that covers not only the Christmas season, but also extends into the new year. We face a number of major problems in this regard.
In our decision, we have again laid out the rationale and underlying philosophy of what we are doing; this is also in line with what the German Bundestag and Bundesrat are adopting in the form of the third law to protect the population during an epidemic on a nationwide scale, and it is always tied to the current infection rate and incidence, as well as to other indicators, of course. As you know, the R rate and the time it takes for infections to double also play an important role. We agreed, however, that the number of occupied ICU beds is a late indicator, one based on which we would no longer be able to stop a spike in infections. That is why we must take action before this happens. The entire philosophy that Section 28a of the third law to protect the population during an epidemic is based on is reflected in this current decision once again.
We then addressed a range of different topics. It’s important to know that the overwhelming majority of the Länder were of the opinion that, at this time, about one week before the next meeting, which will certainly result in legislative changes, there should be no intermediate legislative changes. Opinions on this subject certainly differed to some extent. I would have been open to us already agreeing today on changes related to social distancing that would have then also been transposed into law, because we would have had a few more days’ in terms of leeway time. However, the majority of the Länder was in favour of us doing this after next Wednesday, in one fell swoop, as it were.
However, we reiterated what is at stake here, and we once again called on everyone in Germany to adhere to certain rules. One important point is that we need to take special precautions this winter during the pandemic as far as respiratory illnesses that are not COVID are concerned. The Robert Koch Institute has made proposals in this regard, and they are that if you have symptoms, then you should consult your doctor, go home immediately, and stay at home until the symptoms subside, if that is what your doctor recommends. Why are we saying this? During the winter months, there are – or rather there have been, and we will see if that’s still the case this winter if everyone wears masks; they could be fewer in number – many, many people, millions of people each week, who have cold symptoms that cannot be distinguished from COVID. That’s why we must be extremely careful in this regard, so that people who are symptomatic with something that could be COVID do not go on to infect other people. So the doctor will then determine whether or not a person should get tested. I think this is important.
Besides this, we have said – and that is something we go into greater detail on – that people should abstain from all unnecessary social contacts. Every social contact that doesn’t occur is good when it comes to fighting this pandemic. This means that we must keep social contacts to an absolute minimum.
So we have made it clear once again that people should fully abstain from private parties. Private meetings with friends, relatives and acquaintances should be limited to a specific – meaning one and the same – additional household. This includes children and young people in families. Leisure activities and visits to areas that are frequented by many people and non-essential travel for personal reasons and tourist day trips must not take place – this is something we want to repeat and emphasise. Non-essential time spent in closed spaces that are frequented by many people, or unnecessary trips on public transport, must be avoided. Visits to older and vulnerable individuals should only be made if the visitor truly has no symptoms and if he or she was not exposed to particular risks in the days prior to the visit.
We then also reaffirmed our strategy regarding hotspots, because Germany presents a very mixed picture when it comes to the rate of infection. There are Länder like Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Schleswig-Holstein and Saxony-Anhalt where infection rates have decreased significantly in recent days, and then there are other Länder where infection rates are still much higher. That is why the measures we all have taken are often not sufficient in hotspots. We must do more in those places. That’s something we expressly want to achieve. At the end of the day, it’s simply not helpful if in some Länder the incidence drops back down to 20 while in other Länder it remains significantly above 50. Our aim is to actually get back down under 50.
We also addressed the issue of schools and daycare facilities. First of all, we want to thank all those who are helping to implement our political priority of wanting to keep school and daycare centres open, and we want schools, kindergartens and daycare centres to function properly. So we’re grateful to everyone working in the school system, as well as to all of the kindergarten teachers, for their great commitment. We also know that the Länder are focusing each and every day on the issue of daycare centres, kindergartens and schools can operate. We have received new recommendations from the Leopoldina that I believe should be taken seriously. Today, we spoke about how the Länder need to revisit, against this backdrop, the question of what can be done in hotspots especially to lower the rate of infection in light of these findings.
We then discussed the issue of vaccinations. We got a very good piece of news today regarding a second COVID‑19 vaccine that is being developed by the company Moderna. This is a very good sign following the positive news from Biontech. The Federal Government and the Länder must therefore now do a good job of coordinating the logistical preparations for vaccination centres, so that when we have a vaccine available – and we don’t know exactly when that will be the case, but it could be very soon – so that we will then be fully capable of taking action.
We spoke about what we can do to offer vulnerable groups even better protection; and the Federal Government decided that we want to make 15 FFP 2 masks – i.e. one for each week of the winter – available to everyone who belongs to such a group; the details still need to be worked out by the Health Ministry. We will also provide very clear instructions for their use and there will be a small co‑payment. At the end of the day, we know that these masks come at a cost. Compared to simple cloth or disposable masks, they are relatively expensive. So that’s why we want to enable everyone who is in a vulnerable group to actually be able to purchase these masks. What we do here will be based on the recommendations of the joint federal committee, because it is in a position to make the best and most informed decisions in this regard. These efforts will get under way in December. The law on the prevention and control of infectious diseases authorises the Minister of Health to issue ordinances in this regard.
We have found a way to support hospitals that are treating an ever-increasing number of COVID‑19 patients, so that we can ensure that certain operations are postponed but that hospitals do not face any financial disadvantages as a result. We want to manage this somewhat better than was the case in the spring. At the time, we took a very expensive blanket decision. But I think that we have found a good solution this time around.
We have made recommendations with a view to digitalising the health authorities, which are now also making progress, and we once again expressly support the coronavirus warning app or “Corona-Warn-App”.
All in all, this is a good decision for an interim assessment.
I think that we will need to put a great deal of work into preparing for the next meeting of the Federal Government and the Heads of Government of the Länder, because it will take much more far-ranging and longer-term decisions – always in pursuit of the objective of being able to once again do contact tracing, which means that, as a minimum, we must achieve the seven-day incidence of 50 infections per 100,000 people. We still have a very long way to go before we get there. But the good news is that we have, for now, stopped the exponential growth, and we are all pleased about this development.