Prime Minister Janez Janša on TV Slovenija: My letter to the European leaders was a letter calling for a solution and not a letter in which I would take anyone's side.
Prime Minister Janša was a guest on the programme A Talk with the Prime Minister on Televizija Slovenija. The key topic of the interview was the Government's efforts to tackle the epidemic, including the adoption of measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Prime Minister also touched on current political issues, on Slovenia's role in the European Union and the world, and on the relations in the coalition.
Prime Minister Janez Janša first talked about the current epidemiological situation in Slovenia. He pointed out that the current situation does not surprise him as it was known that the second wave of the epidemic in the colder period would be worse than the spring wave in the event there was still no vaccine or an electronic application available for avoiding contact with infected individuals, and that more or less every citizen in Slovenia should download this app.
As regards the effectiveness of the measures adopted, Prime Minister Janša underlined that the measures adopted at the end of October contributed to the flattening of the curve, but could still not turn it downward. "The results of the measures that entered into force on Monday and partly on Saturday will be evident at the end of next week, and I believe that then the curve will start to decrease," he said.
He further emphasised that there are still some difficult days ahead of us and then also several weeks during which we will need to continue to observe most of the measures in order to prevent the occurrence of a third wave immediately after the second one. "The current situation, even though it is more serious, differs from the one in the spring because at that time we did not know much about the epidemic itself or how the virus behaves and we therefore did not see the light at the end of the tunnel; now, after at least two vaccines have been approved and could already be available for use by the end of December this year, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel." And because of this, in his opinion, the current situation is different, also in terms of planning and patience.
When asked if the Government had been well prepared for the second wave, Prime Minister Janša said that in the period from the first to the second wave our healthcare capacities had increased ten-fold. "We have ten times more hospital beds for COVID-19 patients and ten times more intensive care beds. I do not know whether we could have provided more capacity. But I hope that this will be enough. But we are working on providing enough capacity."
Regarding the lack of healthcare staff, Prime Minister Janša said that, of course, a bed itself does not cure: "When we say that we have ten times more beds, we mean beds with patients being taken care of by doctors and nurses."
In answer to a question as to the situation in homes for the elderly and whether Slovenia could have responded thereto earlier and better, the Prime Minister said that it is definitely always possible to respond earlier and better. In this context, he emphasised that the Government consults Slovenian and foreign experts and adopts its decisions in accordance with the opinions of these experts. He added that Europe functions as a whole, and discussions with other European leaders and the exchange of opinions and experiences occur on a daily basis.
Regarding rapid tests for the staff in homes for the elderly, the Prime Minster highlighted that the Government ordered rapid testing in these homes; in cases where this is not possible, help will be provided by the civil protection service. He assured that additional assistance will be provided wherever necessary. In the interview he also pointed out that there is enough protective equipment available and that the situation is different from that in the spring when the warehouses were empty, and added that the needs will be monitored.
When asked about the reasonability of the measures and whether mistakes have been made, the Prime Minister replied that the Government had to cope with the epidemic from the very first day and that mistakes have definitely occurred. He went on to emphasise that at the beginning Slovenia lacked capacities and the Government might have adopted a measure too quickly or one too many sometimes, or later than it should have, "but we eventually organised ourselves and I believe that in the spring no major mistake was made." He added that in the cold wave the only mistake made was at the time when it was being decided whether to close schools or not, whether to wear face masks or not. In his opinion, this "manoeuvring" accounts for approximately 30 percent of the infections Slovenia is facing today.
In answer to the question of whether the 16th of October, when the National Institute of Public Health changed the protocol regarding tracking high risk contacts, was the symbolic turning point in the second wave, a symbol that made Slovenia lose control over the epidemic, and why the Government did not respond earlier, the Prime Minister said that this was not a decision made by the Government. "The moment when epidemiologists can no longer trace all contacts does not depend on when the Government holds a meeting but rather on the moment when capacities are exceeded. The same happened in the spring; we faced the same situation when testing had to be limited because we lacked capacities. Now, in the autumn wave, we have five or six times greater capacity in comparison to the spring and therefore also more people are tested and more infections are discovered. The number of infected persons is only an approximate indicator of the epidemiological situation. A much more important and dramatic indicator, a real indicator, is the number of those who become ill and need medical treatment. That is, the number of hospital beds occupied and teams engaged and the number of individuals who need intensive care. This is what is decisive when adopting measures," emphasised the Prime Minister. He went on to say that the main problem with tracking contacts occurred early in the autumn or even at the end of the summer, when epidemiologists found that they could not track contacts because the population that tested positive, in particular the younger generation, would not state where they had been. "They did not want to reveal their contacts and all of a sudden we were looking at charts indicating that approximately half of the persons infected did not belong to any category that could be tracked," said Prime Minister Janša, adding that in his opinion this was the very reason that caused the uncontrolled spread of the virus, which later exceeded capacities. "This was the case not only in Slovenia but also all over Europe," he noted.
The Prime Minister also touched on the application for tracking coronavirus infections and said that in Slovenia only 10% of the population had downloaded the application, while in Finland as many as 50% had and that this is also a reason why the trend of the epidemic is different there. "At that time the Government hoped that soft measures that did not bring public life to a halt but only imposed responsible behaviour on each individual would prevent the virus from spreading," he said. He also underlined that Slovenia had great difficulties obtaining the most important data on the coronavirus. "The Slovenian healthcare system has different information systems and the major problem is how to interconnect all these systems. The digitalisation of this process and the digitalisation of the support provided to the decision-making process was very weak throughout," assessed the Prime Minister. In connection with the work of the National Institute of Public Health, he said that the Institute works very hard, and continued: "Another question is if we have an appropriate information support system and legislation that provides for operational and rapid response and decision-making."
Regarding the Government’s public communication, Prime Minister Janša pointed out that some mistakes may have stemmed from fatigue as there is a lot to do, while free time is scarce. He stressed that the judgment passed on the Government’s public communication in Slovenia is harsher than in other European countries. With regard to such communication and the announcement of the epidemic on Twitter, the Prime Minister said that when an important decision is made, it should be disseminated as soon as possible.
When asked whether Slovenia decided to close down schools too early, the Prime Minister replied no. “One of the major mistakes was made when distance learning was introduced for higher-grade students while lower-grade students and children attended schools and kindergartens without masks or restrictions. The data show that the number of infections in educational institutions was twice as high as the average in other countries,” he said, adding that the only major delay occurred in the introduction of measures at schools. In introducing the mandatory wearing of masks, Slovenia followed Italy, which prescribed masks for all people from the age of six. “When we did the same, we were met with a revolt by principals and the school trade union – Mr. Štrukelj, its head secretary, took off his mask in front of the camera saying he could not breathe…," said the Prime Minister, adding that this entailed the death of any hope that the spread of the virus could be curbed with soft measures. When asked about the opening of schools, the Prime Minister said that this will be the top priority after controlling the second wave of the epidemic; however, strict measures will have to be observed.
Regarding the U.S. election and his assessment that Joe Biden, if elected, would be one of the weakest U.S. presidents, the Prime Minister said his message expressed his concern about Biden’s public appearances and everything that happened in the run-up to the election. He stressed, however, that his message would not have an impact on the relations between Slovenia and the U.S. and that as the Prime Minister he always fostered good relations between the countries.
In the interview, the interviewer and Mr Janša also touched on the letters to the Prime Ministers of the Member States of the EU and the European Commission in connection with the blockade of funds for the post-COVID reconstruction. “In Slovenia, the letter attracted a great deal of attention, although the intention was not to take sides but to find solutions,” he said, adding that the media criticised the letter without presenting its content. He considered it curious that the media practically ignored the fact that a historical document, i.e. the budget for 2021 and 2022, was being adopted at the same time by the National Assembly, and received more than 50 out of 90 votes. As far as the rule of law is concerned, the situation is extremely serious since a single Member State can legitimately veto decisions requiring consensus and thus block the process. “If anyone believes that a sovereign state in the European Union can be forced to vote in its own parliament in favour of an instrument that is used by someone else as a threat to discipline that state, they are not living in the real world. Therefore, we are seeking a solution that will be acceptable for all. The first half in July was well played and it ended successfully; now the second half is being played. Once again, a solution will be found, and it will happen with our assistance. These interpretations now are malicious. Without a solution there will no longer be an EU as we know it,” was the Prime Minister’s unambiguous conclusion.
Asked whether he also ascribes these interpretations to the coalition partners, whose reaction to the letter was sharp, Prime Minister Janša emphasised that the coalition partners reacted sharply to what they read on web portals, and not to the actual letter or regulation proposed.
With respect to the support for Hungary and Poland and the assessment of the media in these two countries, Prime Minister Janša said that he believes that the media there are significantly more balanced than in Slovenia. Asked whether it was not in Slovenia's vital interest to resolutely support the efforts for the rule of law in the broadest sense of the word, Prime Minister Janša pointed out: “Absolutely, but instruments that are being introduced and that invoke the rule of law should be legal instruments and not political ones.”
The Prime Minister went on to say that Slovenia is not, and will never be, Hungary. Slovenia has a different tradition, different relations; the order of things is different here. He added: “I am absolutely against demonising Hungary and Poland at the moment, because it is not only unfair, it is also short-sighted, especially in this situation when we need them to agree to a compromise. It also has an impact on whether we will have significant resources to deal with the post-COVID19 situation or not. Not because of us, but because of those who think the situation can be used for a political agenda.”
When asked about the current political situation in Slovenia, Prime Minister Janša underlined that “the undermining of the Government and coalition had begun even before they were formed.” He pointed out the following: “I must say, however, that the parties that joined the coalition when the epidemic was declared, when the warehouses were empty, when our predecessors described the disease as something slightly worse than the flu, did not decide in favour of parliamentary elections at that time. If the SDS had made such decision then, it would have brought it political profit. One question is, however, what would have happened to Slovenia. Even when it comes to our partners, SMC and DeSUS – these are parties that were part of different coalitions in the previous terms – we had criticised one another, we had said different things, but we were able to overcome these differences at the time and both DeSUS and SMC deserve the historical credit for the fact that Slovenia will overcome this epidemic with significantly less damage than it would have if there had been an election campaign in the spring. This has to be admitted even if we part ways tomorrow. As for stability: today I communicated extensively with Brussels because we are looking for these solutions, and some interlocutors congratulated me because the Government has adopted two budgets, which are key documents in the term of any government, with a significant majority; the media, however, report on a constructive no-confidence motion, on the imminent collapse of the coalition, and so on. So the real situation is one thing, and media insinuations are another. As for me or us, I must add the following: if someone has those 46 votes, is willing to promise to form a stable government without elections in this situation, and succeeds, I will readily congratulate them.”
The interview with the Prime Minister ended with the subject of electoral law. “We are making efforts in this respect and a week ago the competent ministry, which plays an ancillary role as this is supposed to be a parliamentary law, sent all parliamentary parties a proposal that is in line with the Constitutional Court's Decision but does not drastically interfere with the current electoral district structure. It remedies the deficiencies pointed out by the Constitutional Court. We hope to get enough support from all parliamentary groups for this law to be adopted in time.” Asked whether he would tie the vote of confidence to the electoral law, the Prime Minister said no, because a vote of confidence is usually tied to governmental laws.