Meeting between Federal Chancellor Merkel and the Heads of Government of the Länder on 10 February 2021

FEDERAL CHANCELLOR DR MERKEL: Ladies and gentlemen, as planned we convened once more today for consultations between the Ministers-President and the Federal Government.

I would again like to briefly outline the current situation: at present, we have a seven-day incidence of 68 infections per 100,000 inhabitants. On 25 January, the last time we held such a meeting – with the exception of the vaccine summit – the incidence was 111. We have thus achieved a considerable reduction, a fall of 43, in around 16 days. That shows that an incidence of 50, which is of particular significance to us, is certainly within reach or sight. Back then, there were four districts with an incidence of less than 50. Today there are 45 districts with an incidence of under 35 and well over 100 districts with an incidence of under 50. Although the pace of the downward trend has slowed down now, the incidence rates are steadily falling. The number of intensive care beds occupied is still more than 800 over the highest number recorded last spring, but 2000 lower than in late December/early January.

Looking at this development, we could be very pleased – indeed we can be very pleased. I would like to thank the public for making this possible with their conduct, especially in their personal lives but also by working remotely and undertaking fewer journeys. They deserve our thanks. It’s apparent that the measures imposed, many of which are very strict, very harsh and very difficult, have had an impact.

Today we wanted to discuss the way forward and, unfortunately, we have to do this in light of a development which none of us could have foreseen last year, namely the emergence of various mutations of the virus. We received the first report on these altered viruses after sequencing was carried out in Germany in late January. At that time, we were told that the British variant accounted for 5.7% of cases and that there were fewer cases of the South African variant. We know, therefore, that this mutation is a reality now and that it will spread. The question is: how quickly will it spread? We know that our R number is not under 0.7; it’s mostly around 0.8 to 0.85. If this variant raises the R number by 0.3, it would again be over one. That means that we would very quickly experience exponential growth.

We would then be facing a third wave, which we would have to tackle. We can only do that if we really do get the incidence rates down and if the health authorities regain control over the virus – in the sense that they can once again trace contacts. Then we can continue to lower the incidence rate while taking steps to ease the restrictions – and that’s what we want to do. In view of what the experts are telling us, namely that the mutating viruses could become more prevalent than the current virus, the time between now and mid-March is vitally important. We therefore have to lower our incidence rates further and we also have to be very careful.

Incidentally, alongside contact tracing by the health authorities, greater testing also plays a role here; for in contrast to last spring, we are now able to monitor the virus in ways that were not possible then thanks to rapid tests and perhaps soon also self-test kits.

We want to do everything we can to prevent waves of infection with the number of new cases rising and falling and restrictions being imposed and then eased again and again. We aim to achieve that by opening up and easing restrictions cautiously, always keeping in mind that we have to monitor which steps have what impact and what that means for the development in the number of cases.

We made it clear again today that certain measures will remain in place, for example social distancing and the avoidance of non-essential personal travel and visits. The appeal to the public to work remotely, which will initially be in place until 15 March, should be taken very seriously.

We know that education has priority; we all stressed that time and again. Child daycare centres and schools are therefore of the utmost importance. I have my own ideas about the opening of daycare centres and also schools. I would prefer if they were to stay closed until 1 March. For I believe that it’s realistic to aim for an incidence of under 50 by that date. However, I’m aware that we live in a federal state. And I firmly believe that, by and large, federalism is better than a centralised state, even though it is sometimes arduous. It goes without saying that schools and daycare centres are firmly rooted in the area of responsibility of the Länder. It’s simply not possible for me as Federal Chancellor to impose my will by using a right of veto as, for example, is possible in the European Union when it comes to decisions which require unanimity. We therefore said that the autonomy of the Länder in the sphere of education stands and – I’m sure that the representatives of the Länder will also talk about this – they will make their own decisions. Our positions are not so very different, but an incidence of 50 is very important to me as a target.

As there was otherwise a high level of consensus among us, we drafted these decisions together as set out here.

We decided that hairdressers will open on 1 March because it is very likely that we can achieve an incidence of 50 throughout Germany by that date.

We then spoke about what the next steps towards easing the restrictions might be. When the next steps are taken, it will be very important, on the one hand, to show people the way forward. Of course, however, we always have to live with the fact that we cannot predict the future. We therefore said that from today’s perspective, particularly against the background of the uncertainty surrounding the spread of the virus mutations, the Länder should take the next step when there is a stable seven-day incidence of less than 35 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants. In this next step, retail is to open with a limit of one customer per 20 m2, as are museums, galleries and those personal care services which are still closed. If such a step is taken throughout a Land then, of course, the appropriate precautionary measures must be taken in consultation with neighbouring Länder in order to prevent shopping tourism. For the other areas listed in this document, namely social distancing in the private sphere, culture, sport in groups, leisure activities, cafés, bars and restaurants as well as hotels, we will agree step-by-step on further measures to ease the restrictions.

The first major step after schools and hairdressers have opened will be taken once we have a constantly stable incidence of less than 35 new infections. I believe that provides us all with a clear roadmap. Some will say: that’s such a low incidence – is it possible to achieve it? To answer that question, I want to come back to my opening remarks: during the last few days – 25 January was not so long ago – we managed to achieve a reduction of 43 points. From 50 to 35 is just another 15 points. If the downward trend continues – and that means, of course, that we have to comply with all other restrictions – we can certainly achieve it. So it’s within our reach.

We then discussed the vaccination rollout, further support for old people’s and care homes and other points which I will not go into here but which are all outlined in our decision.

I would just like to point out that the Federal Economics Minister made an announcement today concerning the interim financial help III package, assistance which was long-awaited and urgently needed. He announced that it’s possible to apply online as of this afternoon. It has therefore been possible to meet the timetable which has always been pledged. The Minister has given an assurance that by 15 February at the latest, applicants will receive generous part payments of up to 400,000 euro – that’s 100,000 per month – in an automatic procedure. The final notifications will then be issued by the Länder from the month of March onwards. I believe that for the many who have real major liquidity problems and have been making special sacrifices due to the pandemic, today’s announcement is important and eagerly awaited.

That is all I have to say about the decisions made today. We’ll meet again on 3 March when, of course, we’ll discuss other issues and, above all, analyse the latest developments. In view of the fact that virus mutations account for an increasing share of new infections, we will have to re-assess the situation. I therefore think that 3 March is a good date for our next meeting. The decisions we made today will therefore initially be in force until 7 March.