Further opening – but also an emergency mechanism

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  • Olaf Scholz

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Statement Further opening – but also an emergency mechanism

Chancellor Merkel discussed further steps in the corona pandemic with the Minister-Presidents of the Länder on Wednesday. She said that the aim of slowing down the spread of the virus had been achieved and that further steps on opening could thus be agreed. At the same time, she said, the responsibility to prevent regression remained. The Federation and the Länder also agreed on an emergency mechanism aimed at ensuring rapid countermeasures if regional infection hotspots occur. 

Statement by the Federal Chancellor

Statement by the Federal Chancellor

Photo: Bundesregierung

FEDERAL CHANCELLOR MERKEL: Ladies and gentlemen, as announced quite some time ago, we continued the scheduled discussions between the Minister-Presidents of the Länder and the Federal Government today. I think we can also say today that the very first phase of the pandemic now lies behind us. But we must always remember that despite this we are still at the start of the pandemic and still have a long way to go as regards dealing with the virus.

The figures reported to us by the Robert Koch Institute for several days now are very encouraging. I want to underline that. A fortnight ago, we hoped to be able to see these kinds of figures after the first larger steps towards opening, especially in the retail sector. The figures are lower than then, and I personally am very glad that this worked. The number of new infections per day is no longer in the thousands every day, but sometimes in the hundreds. The reproduction number is constantly below one. Only in one district in Germany is there a figure of over 50 acute cases per 100,000 inhabitants, and we have largely managed to be able to trace the chains of infection. That is the result of boosting the work of the public health offices. I would like to take this opportunity to say a very warm thank you to the staff of the health offices for this. In the history of our country, they have rarely been as much the focus of attention as they are now.

That’s why we are now at a point where we can say that we have achieved the goal of slowing down the spread of the virus and have been able to protect our healthcare system from collapse. We were able to achieve this because – and this is the most important point – people have lived their lives responsibly during the time of the virus, accepted the restrictions and thus saved other people’s lives.

In view of the current situation, we were also able to discuss and agree on further openings with the Minister-Presidents today. We received a large number of concepts from the specialised ministers’ conferences in recent days, with input from many associations, federations and special interest groups. I am also very grateful indeed for this, as we see that people simply accept the hygiene regulations and the things we need to do at the time of the virus and that daily life is being reorganised in many sectors in line with these requirements.

We also had a long discussion once again today about what things must remain in place. It is perfectly clear – and it didn’t take us long to agree on this – that the minimum distance requirement of 1.5 metres and the use of masks in public space, particularly on public transport and in shops, still stand. Masks may also become compulsory in some places in other sectors that are now being reopened.

We also discussed how contact restrictions are naturally a crucial element, and that’s why we agreed that such contact restrictions will fundamentally remain in place until 5 June. In view of the lower infection rate, people will now be able to spend time in public space not only on their own or with members of their own household or one other person, but also with members of another household. Members of two households are now allowed to meet in public space. But that is still a very clear restriction on contact simply because we want to prevent a rapid spread of infection. This agreement will not affect decisions already made by individual Länder.

Given the fact that there is a very wide range of specific regulations on what exactly can reopen and when – this is due to the different infection rates, but also to the diversity of our federal system – we agreed on something today that I regard as crucial and important for the coming time. If we experience regional differences – and they exist – and if we have lower infection rates, then we also need to have an emergency mechanism where we say that if regional infection hotspots reoccur, then we have to be able to reintroduce special measures in these places. In our previous decisions, we always said that in general.

We have now firmed this up and said that the Länder will ensure that districts or urban municipalities with over 50 new cases of infection cumulatively per 100,000 inhabitants in the previous seven days will draw up a concept on comprehensive restrictions in cooperation with the relevant Land authorities. If the infections are in a specific location that can be clearly defined, such as in an institution like a hospital or a care home, then this concept on restrictions can apply to this institution only. But if we are talking about a regional outbreak across a more widespread area and with unclear chains of infection, then general restrictions will definitely have to be reintroduced until the figure has fallen again to under 50 acute cases per 100,000 inhabitants on seven consecutive days. I would like to point out that there is currently only one district in Germany where the infection rate is over 50 acute cases per 100,000 inhabitants.

We also spoke again about the tracing app that is still being developed.

And we talked again about the school concept agreed by the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs. We did two things that are very important to me. One is in schools and the other is to increase the amount of emergency childcare in day care centres, as we know that children rightfully want to return to their normal lives as much as possible. This will take time. But the Länder have now prepared concepts on this, too, on the basis of which this will increasingly become possible.

One group is of particular importance to me, namely older people in care homes who have largely had to do without visitors for weeks and who are not able to leave these homes and institutions. We know what that means or can only guess what it’s like. These people have a legitimate expectation that we also think about them at a time of reopening, and that is why it was very important to me that efforts are being made so that a fixed contact person will be able to have regular access to people in care homes or people with dementia or, in homes for the disabled, to people with disabilities.

We then also discussed a large number of other sectors, including shops, which can now open regardless of size, although naturally in line with the hygiene concepts. We spoke about recreational sport and also about the first and second Bundesliga divisions, which will be allowed to resume playing from the second half of May under the approved and tested regulations. We then said that the Länder will draw up a concept on sport, as well as on many other sectors that I don’t want to go into now, and that they can then carry out the measures on opening, naturally doing so step by step.

It is also important to me that a concept be developed for theatres, opera houses, concert venues and cinemas. We have asked the Minister of State for Culture and the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs to do so. There are now exemplary ways – as we have seen in the case of religious events – for cultural events to be able to take place again.

All in all, we had a very constructive discussion. In view of the diversity of our federal system, it is no surprise that there are always different opinions on what is most important. That’s completely normal. I want to reiterate very clearly that the hygiene regulations must be observed everywhere. That was said by everyone at our meeting today. In the restaurant sector, for instance, this means that not only do two tables have to be two metres apart from each other, but that if people from two households are sitting at a table, the restaurant will have to ensure that the minimum distance between them is guaranteed. If two people sit opposite each other at a table that is 50 centimetres wide, this does not meet the hygiene-concept requirements. This will be an enormous challenge, including for the sectors that are now opening. Nevertheless, we believe that it is better if we take some steps and naturally give people something to look ahead to, both in schools and kindergartens, as well as in other sectors, rather than making no progress at all.

Not only do we have – and I regard this as crucial – a path towards more opening, we also have a backup plan that says if something happens somewhere, if the infection rate increases somewhere, then we have an emergency mechanism, and in that case only specific regions, and not the whole country, may have to retrace their steps. All in all, I see this as a well-balanced decision.