Meeting between Federal Chancellor Merkel and the Heads of Government of the Länder on 19 January 2021

FEDERAL CHANCELLOR DR MERKEL: Ladies and gentlemen, the current daily figures from the Robert Koch Institute are grounds for hope for us all. They are also a source of encouragement for us. At the moment, at least, the number of new infections is gradually going down and we also have – thank goodness – fewer people being treated in intensive care units. All of this suggests that the tough sacrifices that people in Germany are making are beginning to pay off. I’d like to thank them most sincerely for this.

Nevertheless, we, the Heads of Government of the Länder and I, have decided to meet again for discussions not on 25 January, but already today. We have an important reason for doing this. All of our efforts to contain the spread of the virus are threatened by a serious risk that we can see more clearly today than we could on 5 January, and that is the mutation of the virus that has emerged, particularly but not only in the UK and in Ireland.

Why is this such a threat? Because the epidemiological evidence so far suggests that this mutated virus is much more contagious and that it is a major factor behind the huge increase in the number of infections in both the UK and Ireland. This mutated virus has been detected in our country. We don’t know exactly the extent to which it has spread, however. But individual cases have been identified. The scientists tell us that it is not yet dominant. In a way, there’s still time to contain this entire threat. Of course, it would be completely wrong to believe now that we still have all the time in the world to act. We have to act now, and that is what has motivated me, at any rate, and also all of us during our discussions today. Now is the time to avert the danger that this mutated virus poses. This is about taking precautions. If the mutation had already spread in our country, the number of infections – as we have seen in other countries – could increase dramatically, with the result that our hospitals would then also find themselves in a situation that would be difficult to control.

That’s why we discussed this again today and adopted additional measures and restrictions to achieve a considerable acceleration in the decline in infections in Germany. That’s what this is all about. We know that if the infection figures are low, then the mutated virus also has little chance of spreading further. That’s why we’re continuing down the path we have taken – decreasing infection figures – and want to speed this up with additional measures. In other words, we’re doing this out of precaution for our country, as a precaution for the health of our citizens, and also as a precaution for the economy and the world of work, which would suffer greatly from an exponential increase.

Let me go into the decisions in detail:

I want to emphasise here that we first agreed that we have to extend all measures that were due to expire on 31 January until 14 February. This is, of course, a huge step, and we know what that means for everyone.

Secondly, the rules for private gatherings – one household with another person who is not part of the same household – remain in place. However, we point out that it’s best from an epidemiological point of view if the number of people with whom you meet is small, and that you meet the same people as far as possible, to ensure that contacts and chains of infection do not keep on recurring.

We have extended the obligation to wear medical masks, i.e. surgical masks or FFP2 or KN95/N95 masks, in order to have a greater protective impact. This applies to public transport and shops, where wearing such masks is mandatory. In general, the use of medical masks is also advised in situations where there is closer or prolonged contact with other people.

Our goal is to reduce contacts in public transport in such a way that the volume of passengers decreases significantly, so that distance between travellers can be maintained as a rule. How do we intend to achieve this goal? Firstly, by making extensive use of options for working from home – we’re lagging far behind the figures we had in March of last year here – by doing everything we can to reduce volumes of passengers during rush hours in commuter and school traffic, and secondly by making it compulsory to wear medical masks.

We held long discussions about what’s needed with respect to children and schools. We all know that this has imposed incredible restrictions on the children and the parents concerned. But there’s credible evidence that the B.1.1.7 mutation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads more quickly among children and adolescents than was the case with the previous virus. We must take such evidence seriously. We therefore refer again to the decision of 13 December 2020. We must extend this decision until 14 February 2021, and we must insist that this decision be strictly implemented. We reached agreement on this following a long discussion. According to this decision, schools will, as a rule, remain closed or children will continue not to be required to attend classes at school. The same approach will be taken for daycare centres.

We know what contribution nursery teachers and school teachers are making, and therefore wish once again to express our thanks for what they’re doing to help deal with the pandemic, especially with the children and young people.

Let’s turn once again to old people’s and care homes. We have taken another practical step in this area in recent days by deploying 10,000 Bundeswehr soldiers to provide assistance and carry out tests. What applies to old people’s homes and nursing homes also goes for facilities for people with disabilities. This is very important because these facilities are legally enshrined elsewhere and are often forgotten, which is something we expressly do not want to happen.

In the decisions taken today, we also touched on services in churches, synagogues and mosques, and about the gatherings of other faith communities. Such gatherings are only permitted under strict conditions, including keeping distance from others, wearing masks, also medical masks, and the prohibition of congregational singing. Gatherings with more than ten participants must be reported to the relevant office responsible for public order at least two working days in advance, unless the religious community in question has already made general arrangements with specific authorities.

Alongside schools and daycare centres, another key point in our discussions today was the issue of working from home. We’re taking legal steps in this area and already held discussions on this matter on 5 January. The Minister of Labour and Social Affairs will issue a regulation, initially limited until 15 March, according to which employers must allow their employees to work from home wherever possible, provided that their work permits this. We expect that this will reduce contacts in workplace, and also on the way to work. We ask employees to really take advantage of these offers.

Even where physical attendance is still required, it goes without saying that we want the best possible protection for employees. That is why the occupancy of rooms must be reduced. Where sufficient distance from others cannot be kept, medical masks must be worn.

We ask employers to endeavour to stagger the start and end times of working days to reduce the volume of passengers on local public transport.

Special options for writing off expenses are being created so that we can promote digitalisation, which, after all, is closely bound up with working from home. I think that’s a good step as an incentive, and this will be worth it in the days ahead.

We talked about the fact that the incidence of 50 that we set ourselves will not be reached in many districts and that extensive local and regional measures going beyond the general rules can therefore continue to be taken where this incidence has not yet been reached, so that we can then gradually proceed together towards this incidence of 50 per 100,000 inhabitants in seven days.

We then had another long discussion about vaccinations. It goes without saying that we’re dependent on having reliable producers. We all saw how Pfizer suddenly changed its deliveries, which is having a major impact on the entire logistics of the Länder. We agreed that we will do everything we can to make vaccinations available to each and every member of the public by the end of the summer. However, we are, of course, dependent on the vaccine doses actually being on stream. But we will, for our part, do everything in our power to make this happen.

We also addressed the issue of sequencing as we now expect that we will get more information about the mutated virus. The Federal Government will present an initial evaluation by the beginning of February. The experts, among them Prof. Christian Drosten in particular, told us yesterday that there is a good chance that we will get a better quantitative analysis in two to three weeks’ time.

We talked again about the fact that, if we agree on a strategy for easing measures with each other, it is then, of course, necessary to regain and remain in control of the rate of infection, i.e. that we can guarantee full contact tracing. This means that the health offices will have to be further strengthened in terms of personnel and organisation. We must use the time we still have in the run-up to 15 February to create the conditions for this. The SORMAS system is to be used to this end or interfaces created to ensure nationwide communication and easier contact tracing.

A final word from me on the subject of Europe: we will hold a European Council meeting on Thursday as a video conference at which we will focus on the issue of mutations in addition to vaccinations. It is absolutely clear, and this much has also been said by many Heads of Government of the Länder here today, that Germany is surrounded by many countries. We can take whatever approach we want here, but we won’t succeed unless others also work on this in lock step.

I know that neighbouring countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands have also been working to tighten their measures today. But we need to ensure that all of our neighbouring countries are genuinely singing from the same song sheet here. If that’s not the case, then we have to take precautions on matters pertaining to entry, because, of course, we can’t allow what people are doing here and what we’re asking them to do to be undone by introducing the virus into our country time and again. This is also a big issue and calls for a uniform European approach. This applies not only to the EU, but also to neighbouring countries such as Switzerland, for example, which isn’t part of the European Union.

So those were the decisions that we reached. It took a long time, but I believe that it was worth it. What we have to expect of people once again is tough. But the precautionary principle is our priority. We have to take this into account now, and this is what we did today.