Meeting between Federal Chancellor Merkel and the Heads of Government of the Länder on 5 January 2021

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Chancellor Merkel: Ladies and gentlemen, allow me once again to wish you a healthy and happy New Year – this is, after all, our first encounter this year.

We were aware that we would be meeting again already at the beginning of the year as the regulations that we put in place in December are only effective until 10 January, and we had to take stock of the situation in order to make the necessary preparations for the period after this. Prior to this meeting, we held consultations with experts yesterday at which the head of the Robert Koch Institute, Mr Wieler, reminded us once again that, owing to the Christmas and New Year break, reliable data regarding the actual incidence in Germany will only be available from around around 17 January. That means that we suspect that the incidence is much higher than 50, but it’s impossible to tell right now precisely how high it is.

Our objective remains, of course, to get below 50 new infections per 100,000 people over seven days. Why? To make tracing chains of infections possible once again. This is all the more important because we have learned that there is a mutation of the virus in the UK that is spreading more quickly and thus causing more infections per contact. This means that we must be especially careful here, and this is giving rise once again to a new and unique situation.

Among the experts, we listened yesterday to Prof. Kroemer, head of the Charité here in Berlin, who spoke on behalf of the university teaching hospitals and reminded us once again of the great strain under which intensive care units are now working in the Federal Republic of Germany. As you know, our aim has always been to prevent the healthcare system from being overburdened. However, we are now experiencing extreme situations in a number of hospitals. This has prompted us to take far-reaching decisions today – alongside all of the arguments that I just mentioned.

We want to extend the decisions that we took in December until 31 January, and, for the reasons that I just mentioned, we will have to tighten these decisions once again in a number of areas. One reason for this is the fact that contacts must be reduced still further because we have seen that we have not been able in recent weeks to reduce the incidence by as much as we wanted, and because we are again faced with an uncertain situation owing to the virus and its mutation.

This means that we are calling on all members of the public to limit their social contacts to an absolute minimum, and we will extend the decisions in place to date to permit encounters only among members of one’s own household and a maximum of one person who does not live in that household. This is a considerable reduction as compared with the current regulation of five people from two households. We feel that we are forced to return to this measure put in place in March for the reasons mentioned above and believe that it is right, even if people find it tough. We don’t want anyone to be alone; this is why contacts with one person not living in the household are allowed, but otherwise only contacts within the household are permitted.

We will close company canteens wherever working processes allow for this. Takeaway meals and drinks will continue to be available, but consuming them in canteens will be prohibited. We renew our call for employers and employees to apply generous options for working from home once again or to create new ones in order to genuinely implement the principle of “we’re staying at home” and also to relieve the burden on public transport.

We have, with respect to the hotspot strategy that has already been adopted – i.e. what happens in districts with over 200 infections – decided to put in place another possible measure, namely restricting people’s movements to a radius of 15 km from their places of residence, unless they have a valid reason to do otherwise. Valid reasons include, of course, visits to doctors or travelling to and from workplaces. In particular, we consider that day trips for tourism purposes do not constitute a valid reason. You know what happened in certain regions when it snowed recently and how many contacts there were as a result. This must be prevented. A number of Länder already have this 15 km rule; so this isn’t entirely new. However, it can be added to the hotspot strategy for incidences above 200.

We turned our attention to care homes once again – this was by no means the first time that we did this. A requirement to be tested is already in place, and this has been the case for some time. However, we have ascertained that this test requirement isn’t being carried out sufficiently across the board and that it’s necessary to increase staffing levels. We’re most grateful that the Federal Employment Agency will also help to train extra teams in order to genuinely ensure that this test strategy is comprehensively implemented in all care homes. [NB: more information on p. 9] In terms of the costs that this entails, we have long had a generous regulation in place both for reimbursing test costs as well as for reimbursing costs for additional personnel that will be required. Moreover, we have also made it clear once again that institutions working in the area of integration assistance should also be involved in this initiative.

Let’s also talk about the new mutation of the virus. The aim here is, first and foremost, to step up efforts to sequence viruses in Germany. An additional regulation will be passed to this end within the framework of the Third Civil Protection Act.

We talked at great length about the issue of vaccinations – this is the right thing to do as we know that, thanks to the vaccine that is now available, we have prospects in terms of normalising our everyday lives and for returning to a life without restrictions imposed on us by the pandemic. In this context, we made it very clear once again that the Federation and the Länder welcome the fact that the European Union has placed a joint order for vaccines and that the objective of securing access to the vaccine together for all 27 member states of the EU is an important one. By the way, this objective is also in Germany’s interests. After all, we’re surrounded by many member states of the European Union, we operate in a free single market, we have a Schengen area in which freedom of movement is possible, and a high number of vaccinated individuals in Germany combined with many people in our neighbourhood who are not vaccinated would not be to Germany’s benefit. This is why we don’t want to see any purely national approaches, but believe that the most effective way to protect our health is to take steps jointly in Europe.

In this context, we clarified once again – and this is something that is, of course, extremely important in terms of scheduling for the Länder – when we can forecast which deliveries they will receive. At the moment, we only have one certification for a producer of vaccines, namely BioNTech/Pfizer. Others will follow. However, we do not know when or how many. However, we will ensure that, when a vaccine comes on stream, people can actually receive it. This calls for the highest possible level of predictability. It goes without saying that we cannot pre-empt the decisions of the authorisation bodies – in this case the European authorisation body.

A series of questions have arisen in this context. We will only be able to vaccinate priority groups in the first quarter of the year – this isn’t a fresh insight. In the second quarter, we will, as far as we can see now and with everything that we know from the producers, already have considerably more doses of vaccine. This will then continue, of course, in the second and third quarters of the year. Overall, the European Union has ordered considerably more doses than are necessary to vaccinate everyone in the EU.

A further point concerns the operation of childcare facilities and schools. In this area, we have decided that the measures taken by the Länder in accordance with the decision of 13 December will be extended until the end of January. We’re aware that this is a tough decision, but we consider it to be necessary. As this means that parents have to look after their children at home and take care of them themselves, we are extending the regulation that we already had in 2020, so that ten additional days will be available to each parent on top of the statutory ten days already in place. Such leave of absence can usually be taken in the event that children are sick. We’re extending this to situations in which, owing to the pandemic, access to childcare facilities is restricted or children are no longer required to attend classes. This means that parents who, as a result of restricted access to schools or daycare centres or owing to the closure of schools, have to look after their children at home can take advantage of this leave that is otherwise only available for sick children and that the number of possible days of leave is being doubled.

Let’s also say a word or two about financial compensation, which is being worked on intensively, of course, as we know what the loss of revenue means for shuttered businesses, restaurants, etc. The Federation and the Länder are working on this together closely and are attempting to speed things up as far as possible.

Moreover, we will introduce a two-prong testing strategy for people entering the country from risk areas. This means that you have to present a test when entering the country, but go into quarantine nonetheless. After the fifth day, you can come out of quarantine following another negative test, as is already the procedure today. That’s vitally important. There was a great deal of travel over the Christmas period, and in this area of open borders, and also very large risk areas around us, this is important in terms of reducing the spread of the virus from other countries.

We will meet again on 25 January to see where we stand then. The measures that we have adopted today are far-reaching. These are not only the continuation of what we did before Christmas, but, in view of the situation, they are tougher, especially in the area of contact restrictions, and, in some cases, regarding freedom of movement in hotspots and the situation of schools and childcare facilities. The continuation of these measures represents, of course, a great challenge for parents and for children, but we believe that we have to do this in order not to lose sight of our objective. I have said time and again that the winter months are – and the experts reiterated this much yesterday – the months during which the pandemic has the potential to be at its most ravaging. These measures are absolutely necessary also in view of the combination with the mutated virus, which has also been detected here. This is why we must get to a point at which we are able to trace chains of infections once again, because otherwise we will keep on reverting to a lockdown following a brief easing of measures. In order to avoid this situation, it is important to try now to scale things back considerably once again.