Chancellery Chief of Staff Helge Braun, 48, says he is confident Germany will be a able to loosen its lockdown soon, as long as the populace adheres to the current COVID restrictions. He says the next three weeks will be decisive for the country.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Braun, almost 90 percent of the people dying from the coronavirus are older than 70 years old. In Berlin, more than half of the victims live in retirement homes. Has the government failed to protect the elderly in this pandemic?
Braun: Around 30 million people in Germany belong to vulnerable groups, to whom we are now giving FFP2 masks. Perfectly protecting all these people from a high incidence of infection simply isn’t realistic. We spoke early on to the states about hygiene plans, we sent FFP2 masks to homes and we ordered rapid tests. Nevertheless, we clearly cannot prevent the virus from being carried into the homes.
DER SPIEGEL: Only now, one year after the outbreak of the pandemic, have the federal and state governments agreed on a uniform protection plan for retirement homes. That is far too late.
Braun: All the way back in April, an agreement was reached with Germany’s 16 states states that every facility had to implement a professional hygiene plan. In summer, it seemed as though case numbers – in care homes, as well – would stabilize at a low level. In October, though, it became clear that no plan is sufficient if infection numbers in the overall population grow too large.
DER SPIEGEL: Staffing shortages are severe. It hasn’t been possible to recruit enough volunteers to help with testing in the homes.
Braun: Every institution that needs staff will receive support. Germany’s armed forces are immediately available for this purpose, and we are also offering to provide temporary staff with the help of the Federal Employment Agency.
DER SPIEGEL: What does that say about our care system when we need 10,000 soldiers to keep care homes functioning?
Braun: There is, of course, a shortage of staff – that was already a problem before the coronavirus. We have done a lot in the current legislature period to address it. But many things don’t take effect overnight. The coronavirus has resulted in an additional workload at extremely short notice.
DER SPIEGEL: Two-thirds of those in need of care are provided with home care, and politicians rarely talk about them. How can this group be protected?
Braun: Here, too, we are relying primarily on FFP2 masks. Secondly, vaccinations are playing a major role for this group. Progress in vaccination will accelerate massively in a few weeks, once conventional vaccines are on the market, for which large production facilities are available and for which storage is easier.
DER SPIEGEL: The entire country had high hopes for the vaccine, but now there are delays with the BioNTech-Pfizer product. How upset are you.
Braun: I think there were misguided expectations. In October, we didn’t even know when we would have a vaccine. That we now have two is a huge success. It was foreseeable from the beginning that there were be shortages initially.
DER SPIEGEL: But it was not foreseeable that Pfizer would suspend deliveries.
Braun: The European Commission is currently dealing with that – whether the changes in production really have to take place now. (Ed’s: Pfizer announced earlier this month that it would temporarily suspend operations at its European factory in Belgium in order to expand its production capacity.) It’s bothersome because is should be part of planning. But: Vaccines are the most sensitive medical products available. There is always the unforeseen possibility that a vaccine batch will fail due to manufacturing problems. The same thing happens with flu vaccines.
DER SPIEGEL: You recently voiced displeasure with the measures adopted by Germany’s state governors for containing the coronavirus. How is your mood after the latest meeting this week?
Braun: I am very pleased that the infection figures are now falling. This also has a lot to do with the exemplary behavior shown by the populace over the Christmas holidays. Nevertheless, it was necessary to extend the measures because we do not know the extent to which the much more infectious mutations, like the one from Britain, have already spread in Germany. That is why we must continue to further drive down the number of infections. The big question is this: Are we moving fast enough before the mutated virus becomes the dominant one, as it has in Britain? The chancellor and I would have liked a little more consistency in the measures taken by the Governors’ Conference, especially for schools.
DER SPIEGEL: Why are you so tough on the issue of schools?
Braun: The British experience was that in the period from November onward, the mutant spread widely through children and young people because schools were still open during the lockdown. Then, when things were broadly loosened up, the numbers exploded because the mutations have made the virus much more contagious. That’s why it is wise to avoid in-person classes if we want to bring the numbers down quickly and not give the mutation a chance.
DER SPIEGEL: What is your reaction to accusations that the federal government lacks the sensitivity to adequately address the needs of children and families?
Braun: It is our deep conviction is the following: Given the high levels of infection currently, if we continue to consistently bring that number down, we will reach a situation much sooner where schools can be safely reopened without having to quarantine entire classes every few days.
DER SPIEGEL: That hasn’t worked out so far.
Braun: My aim has always been to react quickly to prevent prolonged suffering. That is why I sounded a strong warning in October when we had an incidence of 40 and it was clear that we were going to go up to 80 in a very short period of time. In that situation, we could have managed to return – within just a few weeks – to the relatively comfortable situation we enjoyed in summer.
DER SPIEGEL: Yet state governors decided on a different route. What can you do to support the schoolchildren who are suffering the most now?
Braun: We have made it possible for parents to take more sick days to care for their children. We have always said that we need to be cautious about closing schools. Graduating classes need to be able to continue to attend classes, there has to be emergency childcare for children of critical workers and it also has to be open to those facing social hardship.
DER SPIEGEL: How long can that work without causing major harm to schoolchildren?
Braun: On the one hand, pediatricians and others providing health care for children and adolescents have warned very clearly about the consequences of children not being able to be at school with their peers for an extended period. At the same time, though, they emphasize that consistent observance of social distancing and hygiene rules is urgently needed for safe school operations. What we’re weighing is this: If we drive the incidence below 50, then we can transition to reliable hybrid learning, with the necessary amount of social distancing.
DER SPIEGEL: That is also the message sent by the panel of experts that you convened prior to the Governors’ Conference. The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) criticized the one-sidedness of that panel. Why, for example, didn’t you invite the virologist Klaus Stöhr, who considers an incidence figure of 50 in winter to be illusory. Was he too uncomfortable for you?
Braun: There were a lot of proposals made to invite additional experts. Our primary aim was to get information about the British mutation B.1.1.7. That is how we unanimously agreed on this group with the chairman of the Governor’s Conference.
DER SPIEGEL: He also issued a plea for a hard lockdown, as the Chancellery wanted. Where were the opposing opinions?
Braun: Politicians can’t just pick experts of their choice. We have the Robert Koch Institute, which is responsible for advising us and guiding us in the crisis. We have the Leopoldina Academy of Science, which summarizes the prevailing scientific thinking for us. But, of course, we also deal with individual opinions or minority votes. However, it is important not to pick the single opinion that neatly fits the political will, but to take science as a whole seriously.
DER SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, many see a lack of creativity in the measures. What, for example, is happening with the ventilation measures, for which the federal government is even providing funding?
Braun: I am always open to creative suggestions! Some things, such as retrofitting and equipping all school rooms with fresh-air ventilation systems, are unfortunately not realistically possible in the time frame of a pandemic like this. But the quick retrofitting of existing recirculation systems, in the auditoriums, for example, so that they filter the air, that is taking place.
DER SPIEGEL: Another strategy would be increased reliance on rapid tests to detect infection chains earlier.
Braun: Untargeted testing is not a model for success. In all the studies that have been conducted – in South Tyrol or Slovakia, for example – the result has been that relatively few positive cases are found and you send far more people into quarantine unnecessarily because of false positive test results until they get a more reliable lab test. Used correctly, though, such as before visits to vulnerable groups or necessary encounters where distancing cannot be practiced, they are a blessing.
DER SPIEGEL: What long-term prospects do you see?
Braun: It all depends on whether or not the more contagious mutants gain the upper hand in Germany. Our goal is to reduce the number of cases very quickly. Then, when we have solid control over the course of infections, we can gradually relax the restrictions. Spring will make it easier for us, and more and more vaccinations are coming. We could be back to our normal lives in the summer. That’s the best case. And that’s what we’re working toward.
DER SPIEGEL: And what is the worst case scenario? A hard lockdown in 14 days?
Braun: If the mutant is very fast, if it gains the upper hand, and if our measures are not consistently implemented, there is a risk that our success will be foiled. Then we will have to impose massive restrictions until enough people are vaccinated. Avoiding that is what the next three weeks are all about. I am confident. If we can achieve this together, in the end, we will be able to say: Germany got through the crisis well.