Meeting between Federal Chancellor Merkel and the Heads of Government of the Länder on 3 March 2021
FEDERAL CHANCELLOR MERKEL: Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve only just managed to start by saying “good evening” and don’t have to start by saying “good morning”. We had a most intensive and, in my view, very important debate today. After all, we’re once again standing at the threshold of a new phase of the pandemic, a phase that we cannot enter lightly, but one – and I believe that it’s most important to say this – we can embark on with justified hopes.
We can talk today about hope and about transitioning to a new phase because all of us have achieved a great deal in our country in recent months. When the virus spread dramatically in the autumn, we all stood up to it together, and that entailed severe and, for some, also tremendously onerous restrictions, temporary encroachments on our freedom, on our economic order and on our cultural life, the likes of which had never been seen before in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany.
What we have endured together was tough. However, today we can also say that what we did has been effective. It has yielded successes that we can be proud of together. I’d also like to thank our citizens once again for this. Around Christmas time, we brought our intensive care units back from a dangerous emergency situation, back from the brink of becoming overloaded. We managed to contain the spread of the virus. Even now, when we’re seeing the more contagious mutations of the virus advancing ever further in this country, we have new daily numbers of infections that are at the lower end of the scale when compared with other European nations.
In all this, with a great effort on the part of the state, we have managed to prevent a new wave of mass unemployment. We have mobilised huge amounts of money to get our economy through this extreme period. Despite all of the imperfections, and many things haven’t been perfect, Germany has shown strength in its response to the second wave of the pandemic.
The task now facing policymakers, and we talked about this for many hours today, is to take the next steps wisely. These should be steps to reopen the country, and at the same time steps that must not set us back in the pandemic. In Europe, there have been many examples of a dramatic third wave – and it must be clear to us that we also face this danger.
Nevertheless, I can say today that the spring of 2021 will be different from the spring last year. We’re further ahead today in many respects, and that’s primarily due to two helpers against the virus that we have now and which we simply didn’t have in 2020. Those two helpers are the various vaccines and the whole range of tests at our disposal. We started today by discussing expanded testing options, as well as the vaccine rollout. These expanded testing options improve our ability to keep on top of rates of infection and also to make the easing of restrictions safer. Vaccination is the way out of the pandemic; it’s our most reliable helper. That’s the way to actually overcome the virus. That’s why these two tools for tackling the pandemic loomed so large in our deliberations today. We addressed these aspects at the beginning of our discussions.
Let’s start with vaccinations. The majority of those most at risk, i.e. the very elderly in care homes and those who provide medical and nursing care for them, have now been vaccinated. That’s a tangible increase in safety. This is, thank goodness, also gradually making itself felt in the decreasing number of deaths or, if there are still coronavirus outbreaks in nursing homes, in milder symptoms. Experts expect that we’ll soon see even clearer effects.
We talked at length today about how we can give vaccination a significant boost and how we can go about it in such a way that the number of possible initial vaccinations is maximised. We want to take advantage of all the flexibility available to us, and we know that we’re locked in a race against time here. That’s why we agreed the following today:
Firstly, the interval between the first and second vaccination with the respective vaccines, i.e. with the BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccine, must be fully exploited. This means that the second vaccination should always be administered only at the end of the recommended interval – 42 days for BioNTech and 12 weeks for AstraZeneca. This will allow us to give more people their first vaccination more quickly. This was also recommended by the Standing Commission on Vaccination.
Secondly, the Standing Commission on Vaccination looks set to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine for higher age groups, and we’re happy to take up this recommendation. The latest studies have furnished evidence for this.
Thirdly, this is also a question of developing an intelligent management strategy so that in the event that vaccination appointments are not kept others can take their place. A flexible approach should be taken here, and this will also be ensured by future vaccination regulations issued by the Minister of Health. General practitioners can be involved in vaccinations already today via the Länder. This will also be specified once again in the vaccination regulation, which is set to enter into force at the beginning of next week.
Fourthly, the work of vaccination centres – this has been confirmed once again by the Länder – can be switched to a multi-shift system at any time and extended to seven days; there’s no question about that.
Fifthly, at the end of March or the beginning of April, the supply to general practitioners is to be established as a second strand in addition to the vaccination centres, so that the entire vaccination process is made even more flexible. So that means getting vaccines to people as quickly as possible, and we believe that we have further potential for increasing this.
The second helper is testing. Rapid tests and also self-tests ascertain with a high level of accuracy whether someone is contagious on any given day. Such tests can make contacts safer on the day in question. Above all, it’s possible to filter out asymptomatic people very effectively and thus prevent chains of infection from arising from those who would otherwise not be detected at all. We want, of course, to make comprehensive use of these systematic tests in addition to the rapid antigen tests that are already out there today. There are three pillars here.
The first pillar is the one that the Federal Minister of Health had already offered and which is now set to come on stream from 8 March, namely one test reimbursed or paid for by the Federal Government for all members of the public per week. In other words, this offer will apply from 8 March, and the relevant testing centres will be made available to this end.
The second pillar is testing in schools and daycare centres. This is an issue that has been highlighted time and again by the Länder. The priority now is testing with conventional rapid antigen tests already today. These tests are available in sufficient quantities. But technological innovations will make self-tests much easier to use. When it comes to procuring these tests for the Länder, for schools and daycare centres, we, the Federal Government and the Länder, will set up a joint task force and commission platform providers to handle pooled orders and offers. So that’s a service that can be provided by private platform providers and in which the Federal Government and the Länder will work closely together.
The third pillar is the provision of rapid antigen tests for employees, both the conventional and new type, depending on the products supplied by the sector. We will continue the discussions on this issue in the Federal Government on Friday.
So we talked about this matter at length. These are the helpers that are supporting our measures to ease restrictions.
We then looked very intensively, as you can imagine, at the next steps towards easing restrictions and reached agreement on five steps. Of these, the first is that certain regional restrictions have already been lifted for schools a few days prior to 1 March, and from 1 March also for hairdressers, i.e. since the beginning of March.
The second step will then begin from 8 March. Here, from the second step onwards, we applied the same pattern to each step, whether the first, second, third, fourth or fifth step, namely that we need a stable or decreasing trend. The steps start either at incidences below 50 – in which case there are facilitated conditions; I’ll say something about that in a moment – or at incidences above 50. More restrictive measures in the various strands that I have often mentioned – from contact restrictions to school attendance to questions of culture, trade, bars and restaurants and the like – are then bundled together to form certain packages.
A next step can be taken whenever there’s a stable or declining trend after 14 days since the previous step. This means that you undertake step two and then see after 14 days how the incidence is shaping up. Is it stable, or is it even decreasing? Then you can move on to the next step.
If between one step and the next the incidence rises to 100, i.e. if 50 doubles, if that’s the case for three consecutive days, on the following day you have to revert to the starting point as it was prior to 8 March. That means that we’re building in an emergency brake for the event that we experience exponential growth. That’s why there’s the number 100, i.e. double 50. Then we have to go back to the situation prior to 8 March, so to speak.
That means we’re operating in a realm in which, of course, if you look at the RKI recommendations now, a value above 50 already is a very dangerous zone. We know that contact tracing becomes much more difficult beyond 50. But we’re specifying scope for action, a buffer, if you will, because we trust in the new options for testing and because we think that, thanks to this, we will have a better overview when easing restrictions further and we can then take these steps one by one.
So from 8 March, retail can be opened with square metre restrictions if the incidence is below 50. In the event of an incidence of over 50, “click and meet” will apply. In the event of an incidence above 50, museums, galleries, zoos and botanical gardens can be opened if you have booked an appointment and visitors’ contact information is recorded, and there will be slightly expanded scope for outdoor sports for limited numbers of people.
If we have a stable or declining incidence for 14 days, then we can proceed to the next step, which is 22 March at the earliest. That would then include outdoor dining, from an incidence of below 50 in general and with advance booking from an incidence of over 50. It would include theatres, concert halls, opera houses and cinemas, in each case flanked by a rapid test – with no requirement to provide test results if the incidence is below 50 – and certain further sports activities.
We have envisaged another step that can take place 14 days later at the earliest, i.e. from 5 April. The focus here will be on reopening retail if the incidence remains stable, as well as further sports activities. If the incidence is below 50, even outdoor recreational events with a maximum of 50 participants may be possible.
So we have a tiered concept. On 22 March, we will then talk about how to proceed with the other areas – for example, hotels, holiday homes and the like.
As I said, the important thing is the emergency brake, which really has to be adhered to accurately. If the incidence is above 100 for three consecutive days, two days later we have to revert to the measures that were in place before 8 March.
All of this is, I believe, a concept based on reliability. It’s a concept rooted in proceeding step by step. It was also very, very important to me that we put together packages here that aren’t too big. Nevertheless, we know that we’re in a very delicate phase given the mutations that are increasing – we’re now at about 50 percent; we’ll see in the next few days, of course, that the British mutation will become the dominant mutation and the original virus will disappear. It will, for this reason, be important that all the other contact restrictions, all the other rules on distancing, hygiene measures and face coverings, and everything that we have got used to in the pandemic, is complied with to the letter. Even testing doesn’t mean that you don’t have to comply with distancing rules and other regulations.
We’re extending options for teleworking until 30 April. We will work to install contact tracing, especially for attending events and going to outdoor restaurants and the like, in electronic form, which will be selected by the Länder and used on a nationwide basis. You’re familiar with the Luca system as an example. The Länder will reach a decision on the type of system in the near future. All of this will be coupled with the health authorities so that we can implement electronic contact tracing on a nationwide basis within the competence of the Länder.
We will set up a hardship fund for economic assistance. The details of this are set to be clarified in the very near future. But the costs for this will be shared equally by the Federal Government and the Länder.
The costs of the child bonus, which we had already agreed on within the coalition, will be assumed by the Federal Government. We will talk again about extended sick leave for children at another Conference of Minister-Presidents if the shutdown measures still have to apply.
I think our negotiations were tough. This is a period that is bound up with a great deal of hope. I know how great these hopes are for a lot of people. We will certainly disappoint hopes as well. But we were of the opinion that if we have to go back and forth too many times, then we will dash more hopes. So we want to seize these opportunities.
We have reached a further agreement for municipalities or regions – this doesn’t currently apply at Land level – that are below an incidence of 35. They will be able to enjoy extended contacts, i.e. not just two households and five people – children not included – but rather one household plus two others, so essentially three households. So it should be worthwhile to make an effort and not spread infections in the region. We hope that this regional and also the Länder-specific approach that we’re now working with will afford us greater diversity and thus create incentives for everyone to make even more of an effort, so that we can return to our normal lives as far as possible. That’s our goal at the end of the day.