Meeting between Federal Chancellor Merkel and the Heads of Government of the Länder on 22 March 2021
FEDERAL CHANCELLOR DR MERKEL: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for waiting, and good morning! We have been hard at work today.
Allow me to highlight once again that we have now been fighting this virus for more than a year. Exactly one year ago yesterday – since we are now into the early hours of the morning – the gathering pace of the pandemic made it necessary to impose further restrictions on the social contacts of each and every individual. I will not forget that moment. Immediately after the press conference, I was obliged to begin a 14-day quarantine. An experience that so many people in our country have had since then.
This year, we – by which I mean the Federal Government and the Länder, but also each and every person in Germany – have walked an exceedingly hard path together, a path marked by successes but also by setbacks. We must of course not lose heart in the face of these setbacks. On the contrary, it is possible to emerge from them all the stronger. And we can equally say that we have made a great deal of progress since this time last year. Researchers understand the virus better, doctors can provide patients with better treatment. We all know what behaviours to adopt in order to effectively protect ourselves and others. We have a whole range of tests at our disposal, from PCR tests to home testing kits, and – something that we truly could not have predicted a year ago – we have effective vaccines.
But of course, we have not yet prevailed over the virus. It is not letting up. While we were able to cut infection rates significantly in January, the spread of the more infectious and more dangerous British variant is increasingly visible. We are now seeing exactly the opposite of what happened in January. Cases are rising exponentially, intensive care beds are filling once again, and more young and middle-aged people are now suffering severe cases of the disease. Meanwhile, the phenomenon of “long COVID” is affecting many people.
We do not want our healthcare system to be overwhelmed. We have managed to prevent this throughout the whole course of the pandemic so far, and we must prevent it in the coming weeks. We are racing to distribute the vaccine so that we can start to see its effects as soon as possible.
We are guided by two broad principles: caution and flexibility. Caution and flexibility were also the watchwords at our last meeting of the Federal Government and the Länder on 3 March. At that meeting, we agreed on a timetable which included the easing of restrictions – dependent on incidence rates – as well as an emergency brake should infections begin to rise again. This timetable naturally remains our overarching plan for the road ahead, together with the comprehensive testing strategy which was originally included in it on 3 March. But the fact is that we are now in a very, very serious situation.
With regard to vaccinations – I would like to underline this once more – we drew up key decisions on Friday to introduce flexibility by including general practitioners in the vaccination campaign. We know that the more people are vaccinated, the less we must fear the pandemic, and the more people are vaccinated, the more we can reduce the R number. The science is very clear – the lower the number of new infections, the faster we will see the effects of the vaccine, and the higher the number of new infections, the longer it will take to see these effects.
We naturally want the vaccines to have an effect as fast as possible. And so today we have spent an extremely long time discussing how we can achieve as much as possible in the coming days and weeks, and approaching this question from entirely new perspectives. I have just mentioned the increased danger posed by mutations of the virus. As we are currently once again seeing exponential growth, very clearly and far more clearly than could have been predicted on 3 March, we must sadly announce with today’s decisions that we must make use of the emergency brake, in places where the incidence is above 100. These numbers are unfortunately being recorded once again in many of Germany’s districts and Länder.
We must also reiterate the fact that the steps agreed to ease restrictions can only be taken when the seven-day incidence is below one hundred new infections and decreasing or remaining stable. So there are two things, that is on the one hand the emergency brake to reinstate the measures which applied before or until 7 March if the incidence exceeds 100, and on the other hand new steps to ease restrictions where the incidence is below 100 – and here I would like to emphasise once again that the number of new cases must also be stable or falling before any incidence-based easing of restrictions can take place.
We know that the emergency brake alone will not be enough to stop the exponential growth. And so additional measures must be introduced. Further steps will be taken in districts with a seven-day incidence of over one hundred. We have proposed example measures – because this is also a matter for individual Länder and regions – such as the wearing of medical masks in private settings, specifically when people from different households are travelling in the same car, as well as extended mask requirements, curfews and tighter contact restrictions. These are options which must be used in addition to the emergency brake.
As we approach Easter, the question is: How can we turn the Easter weekend into a period of rest and inactivity? And so we spent a great deal of time today discussing how we can help to break this third wave which is upon us – not just approaching, but upon us – even just a little, even if we cannot break it entirely. Thursday 1 April and Saturday 3 April will therefore exceptionally be deemed “days of rest”, with significant contact restrictions and a ban on gatherings from 1 to 5 April, that is an extended rest period over Easter. For five consecutive days, the principle for all of us will therefore be: stay at home. Private gatherings during this time will be limited to members of one’s own household and one other household, with a maximum of five people in total. Children up to the age of 14, as you know, do not count towards this limit, and couples count as one household. We will ban public gatherings during this time. Where outdoor dining has reopened, it must close for these five days. Only food shops, in the strict sense of the term, will be open on the Saturday.
The Federal Government will submit a proposal for the legal implementation of these measures, including their justification, and the Federal Government and Länder will then present the necessary legislation on this basis. Our approach will fundamentally be rooted in the Protection against Infection Act.
We will engage with religious communities – that is, the Federal Government and the Länder will approach religious communities – with the request that they only hold religious services online during this time; I emphasise “with the request”.
Only vaccination and testing centres will be kept open over this period.
After Easter, we will begin a phase of comprehensive testing on the basis of the three-pillar model: testing in public testing centres, testing in businesses and testing in schools and daycare centres. This broad-based testing system is designed to enable us to realistically consider further steps to ease the measures. What we particularly want to do – as is already being done in Tübingen and to some extent in Rostock today – is to carry out temporary pilot projects in selected regions, with strict hygiene measures and a testing strategy, to open up individual areas of public life in order to learn how we can feasibly go ahead with the easing of restrictions in conjunction with a testing regime.
Businesses, as I have said, form another pillar of this testing regime. We expect them to present an implementation report by the beginning of April. We will also collect data of our own and use this to assess whether there is a need for further action with regard to the occupational health and safety regulation.
We know that some companies are naturally disappointed and continue to be limited in their ability to do business, particularly by the new steps which we have just agreed, the emergency brake. For businesses which are particularly hard hit by closures over a significant period of time, we will therefore develop a supplementary aid package under the terms of European law.
We then spent a great deal of time discussing travel. We advise against all travel abroad. Travel to high-risk areas will entail an obligatory quarantine period. For areas with particular variants of the virus, this will be even stricter. In the current circumstances we see travel in general as not especially helpful, to put it mildly. We will therefore endeavour to do everything we can to prevent returning holidaymakers from bringing back infections and causing new clusters here in Germany. We have agreed with the airlines that crew and passengers will be tested before their return flights. We will amend the Protection against Infection Act and introduce obligatory testing as a general requirement for boarding flights to Germany in light of the ongoing pandemic.
We then briefly discussed hospitals and care homes. I do not intend to go into that in more detail now.
Overall it was a very serious conference, where we approved a package of measures that makes it clear that we are in a difficult phase of the pandemic, in the midst of the third wave. This wave must not be allowed to grow too large, because we must avoid jeopardising the success of the vaccination campaign, or risking our healthcare system becoming overwhelmed, or endangering human lives and triggering long-term effects. That is why we have agreed on some very unconventional measures, as I have explained.
The tenor of our talks was extremely serious but nonetheless positive. I would like to offer my heartfelt gratitude for this. Because, of course, these are not decisions that we take every day; they are truly extraordinary decisions which we nonetheless felt compelled to take.