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Prime Minister Janez Janša discusses the Government’s plans and measures to contain the Coronavirus epidemic in the coming weeks and months

Today, Prime Minister Janez Janša, together with Deputy Prime Ministers Zdravko Počivalšek and Matej Tonin, took part in a press conference on the Government’s measures and plans to contain the epidemic in the coming weeks and months and information regarding the current ongoing vaccination campaign against COVID-19.

"As anticipated in December, when we received the European forecasts for the first half of this year, we entered the most difficult period of the epidemic, but we have not yet reached the peak. Most of the northern hemisphere, including the EU, has found itself in a similar situation. Even countries that have a much more robust, modern and capable system than ourselves are facing problems unlike any they had to deal with before. In exchanging experiences and information with colleagues from other European countries, we all realised that we will still need to get through some very difficult weeks before the vaccination campaign against COVID-19 actually takes effect, and curbs the epidemic," said the Prime Minister at the outset.

He pointed out that the Slovenian Government is the only government limited by the Constitutional Court’s decision to adopt and re-examine measures and ordinances on a weekly basis. He also said that the seeming changes to the regime caused a great deal of dissatisfaction in the last month. The regime, however, did not change; in fact, the validity of most of the ordinances was merely extended. "Some of the easing of measures agreed upon for the holiday season within the European framework went beyond the roadmap to ease measures adopted by the Government on 3 December. The epidemiological situation in Slovenia as well as in other European countries has changed, which is why yesterday the Government partly adapted the roadmap to ease measures and the response plan for the epidemic in 2021, and supplemented it with more detailed criteria for the relaxation of measures by region," added Prime Minister Janša. He went on to say that "after long discussions, we realised that any attempt at easing measures – which is something everyone in this country desires – as well as conducting our lives as normally as possible during the epidemic and reacting on a regional level will only be possible from the moment the country as a whole meets certain criteria, certain indicators, which will allow us to ease measures in the regions with the best epidemiological situation."

The Prime Minister expressed his gratitude to all our fellow citizens who are working in healthcare and have been continuously fighting the epidemic since 12 March 2020. Many others who, during the epidemic, have been heading local communities or working as part of the Civil Protection services or other organisations, as well as volunteers, students, secondary school students in the medical field and so on have also made great additional efforts to ensure that the consequences of this epidemic are not worse and to maintain the capacities of the Slovenian healthcare system and other subsystems that are necessary for getting through the epidemic and for the normal operation of many things," said Prime Minister Janša, who additionally thanked everyone who consistently observed the restrictions.

"As the situation in Slovenia – considering the epidemiological picture – is serious and the number of infections has, as expected, increased after the holidays, we first and foremost need time to allow the situation to stabilise and the curve to turn downwards. As the current forecasts are not the most optimistic, the Government has decided to extend the validity of the restrictive measures, without the exceptions that were applicable at the time of the holidays, until at least 18 January. The measures that are currently in place or that were partially modified with ordinances adopted at yesterday’s session will therefore remain applicable until at least 18 January for the whole country," said the Prime Minister. He added that the Government would reassess the situation on the basis of the criteria for the relaxation of measures next Wednesday.

"The national indicators for the whole country, which range from black to green and are based on the schemes used by most European countries, remain the same. Some changes were made to the measures that fall within a specific category or depend on the situation in an individual region," said Prime Minister Janša, who stressed that it is not enough for each region to reach low enough numbers of infections in the last seven days and of hospitalised patients, "but it is necessary to achieve the national criterion in order to introduce a regional approach." "We will try to introduce a regional approach when the entire country, according to both criteria, i.e. the number of infections in the last seven days and the number of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients in the Slovenian healthcare system at the national level, drops below an average of 1,350 infections in the last seven days and below 1,200 occupied beds or hospitalised patients," said the Prime Minister. He went on to say that if the situation remains stable in the following seven days, at least some Slovenian regions will reach a point on 18 January, when this approach will be adopted for the first time, for relaxation measures to be implemented.

"We are counting on achieving that target on the national level by then," said the Prime Minister. He also stressed that the priorities in relaxing the measures is the return to school for pupils of the first three grades of primary school according to the C model, which involves pupils maintaining greater distance from each other in the classroom and is in line with the plan made in the summer of 2020, and the re-opening of kindergartens for all children, whereby all the prescribed measures need to be taken into account," said Prime Minister Janša. He added that this would be possible in regions that meet the regional criterion, calculated on the basis of factors that apply to the whole country. At what point a statistical region meets a certain criterion is indicated in the roadmap for easing measures. "With regard to easing measures after 18 January in each region, the Government will assess the situation next Wednesday. It will be known then in which regions kindergartens and schools will re-open on 18 January and whether others measures will be eased. In this way, the authorities will have enough time to prepare for this and carry out rapid testing of employees in the field of education in these regions." To better illustrate the situation in the regions – if we could start using this roadmap now, although unfortunately we cannot, as we have not yet reached the national target – the Prime Minister said that the regions that would enjoy an easing of measures would be Goriška, Obalno-kraška and Gorenjska, which had the best epidemiological situation on 6 January. "If the situation in one of these regions, which have practically reached the indicator, stabilises and does not deteriorate, then the easing of measures in phase two can be expected in these regions on 18 January," said Prime Minister Janša. He emphasized that this plan is not something that is being implemented and that it only serves as an example to make it easier to understand the approach that is being explained. "Unfortunately, the current regional trends show that the situation is deteriorating rather than improving," said the Prime Minister, adding that the differences between the regions require a selective approach both in terms of relaxation and vaccination.

"We have recently received relatively reliable information from the manufacturers and the European Commission on how many vaccines from both authorised vaccine manufacturers will be available. Next Tuesday, the weekly vaccination plans by population categories and regional priorities will be presented for at least January and February and, indicatively, for the period until the end of June, but we are all trusting that the situation with regard to the supply of vaccines for the period from mid March onwards will substantially improve compared to the forecasts we received," said Prime Minister Janša. He also added that they were discussing the purchase of another million doses of the Pfizer vaccine with the competent European authorities. "If everything works out well, we will be able to substantially improve the vaccination plan for the period from the end of March onwards," said the Prime Minister. He noted that slightly more than 33,000 doses of vaccine were distributed among the residents of homes for the elderly, where virtually everyone has been vaccinated, except for those who have recovered from COVID-19 in the last three months. The remaining doses were administered to healthcare workers. "The next shipment of the Pfizer vaccine – 16,500 doses – will arrive next week, which will also be the first week when primary healthcare centres receive part of the vaccine shipment, with priority being given to the most-at-risk regions to vaccinate the most vulnerable groups of the population outside homes for the elderly, mainly the people in the oldest age groups, who are most at risk of dying," said the Prime Minister. "Once Slovenia and other European countries have vaccinated the population categories that are most at risk, part of the purchased vaccines will be allocated in solidarity and distributed among the most critical categories elsewhere," added Prime Minister Janša.

Prime Minister Janša also said that it is impossible to anticipate all matters in the context of the relaxation of measures, and one of the unknowns is whether the mutant UK strain of the virus that has already appeared in most European countries is also present in Slovenia. "As of 13 December, our institutions had not recorded that strain, but we do not know whether it is present now. Looking at what is happening in the United Kingdom, where this strain has spread very quickly, there are still certain unknowns," said Prime Minister Janša, who explained that the yellow phase of easing measures is a feasible option, and that it is possible that when we find ourselves in this situation the measures will be relaxed, but "there is still some time before we can determine this more precisely," said the Prime Minister,

I ask everyone occupying leading positions in the economy, the public sector, and businesses that are open to make sure that, during next week, as many urgent things as possible are done remotely, so as not to go into offices. I urge you to avoid high-risk contact when using services offered by service providers that are open, maintain social distancing, wear a protective mask and practice good hand hygiene, as next week will decide whether we will be able to start easing measures from 18 January or whether we will have to extend their validity in the majority of the country," stressed Prime Minister Janša.

He also said that the number of COVID-19 patients in Slovenian hospitals has remained just below the critical limit for a long time now, the medical teams are tired, there are not many reserves; we made preparations in view of the expected increase in infections and tried to create further reserves, but it is simply impossible to do so overnight.

"There has been quite a stir among the public due to the high mortality rate associated with COVID-19. Compared to the spring period, the numbers are drastically high, causing such concern that the Government instructed the National Institute of Public Health to prepare a comparison of mortality rates between last year and the previous five-year period. But even without that, the high mortality rates can be attributed to three main reasons. The first reason is the high number of infections – according to statistics regarding the high number of infections, there is a certain percentage of people who go into intensive care and a certain percentage thereof do not survive. Every death is tragic, especially now that we have the vaccine – even though there is not enough of it available – and know that we can end this. Every life is precious. There are real people behind the infection statistics," said the Prime Minister. "Slovenia has the eighth oldest population in the world and this is the second reason for the high mortality rates, and the third reason for the high number of deaths is that we have not built a single nursing hospital and not a single home for the elderly in the last fifteen years," stressed Prime Minister Janša. "Slovenia should have one nursing hospital in every region and, in the last fifteen years no progress has been made even with regard to long-term care," said the Prime Minister.

"I am appealing for patience in the coming weeks. Everyone would be happiest if we could say that children can return to kindergartens and schools next week, that we can socialise and hold assemblies, but we are not there yet; we have to hold out a bit longer, and I believe we can do it because we don't have an alternative. Together we can bring the numbers down, gradually start lifting the restrictive measures and resume our normal lives, or we can behave carelessly and wait for the epidemic to end with a certain level of vaccination coverage, but in that case the situation will remain unchanged until April," said Prime Minister Janša. "The good news here is that Slovenia has kept fit as an economy and as a society," he added, calling attention to the recent sale of a ten-year bond at a negative interest rate, which he described as a historic achievement. "It used to be very difficult to sell a bond with a maturity of more than five years, and our favourable fiscal situation allows for a relatively quick recovery if we are capable of taking advantage of that," said the Prime Minister.

He concluded that, on 23 December, the Government considered the draft recovery and resilience plan, which is further updated and published daily on the website of the competent ministry, and that "we expect the EU regulation, which will enable the realisation of these plans, to be adopted within the promised timeframe, i.e. by the end of February, and the funds to be released into the Member States' national systems this year, helping us make up for all the lost time in healthcare and care for the elderly."

The Prime Minister then took questions from the press. As he pointed out, the Government kept to the December plan presented to the public and also took into account the psychological factors during the Christmas and New Year holidays. "We expected socialisation, which was eased during the holidays, to be such that risks were largely avoided. We have to admit that there were instances of risky contact, but the majority of the population respected the measures," said the Prime Minister, who assessed that the situation has improved even though the number of infections has increased due to relaunched activities and socialisation during the holidays. "However, if we hold out for a little bit longer, this will be manageable and measures can be eased by region," he said. "The issue of whether opening schools by region is consistent with the applicable principles was discussed on Wednesday; the opinion expressed there was a rational one and a plan was made based on that discussion. And the opinion was that the measures do not mean that we have to find the lowest common denominator in education but rather pursue the principle of proportionality," said the Prime Minister. And the constitutional principle of equality is demonstrated at the end of the school year anyway, said the Prime Minister, adding that there is a possibility of some schools extending the school year into the summer. As regards other schools in Europe, the Prime Minister pointed out that, Germany, for example, has adopted an approach similar to ours.

"When it comes to childcare and kindergartens, the latter are open for anyone working in critical infrastructure facilities, but some schools in some states have both in-school childcare and remote schooling in place for the pupils of the first three grades of primary school. Thus, in the morning, when remote schooling is carried out, childcare is provided for a few children if their parents are otherwise unable to organise it themselves. We could use this niche in our school system in those regions where measures for the first three grades cannot be eased," said the Prime Minister. As regards vaccination by region, the Prime Minister reiterated that the plan will be presented on Tuesday. "The vaccination will be fully in the domain of the National Institute of Public Health, which organises all vaccinations in the country and is also responsible for the preparation of the vaccination plan," said the Prime Minister, who added that, on Tuesday, there will be a logistics plan in place, considering that the received vaccination amounts for at least the following two months are now more or less known, which was not the case approximately a week ago.

Furthermore, Prime Minister Janša said that, in order to prevent instances of opening activities one week and closing them the next from occurring too often, there is a fail-safe mechanism for both indicators on the national level. The Government will also undergo a degree of reorganisation and will have two regular sessions per week. On Wednesday afternoons, sessions will be devoted entirely to the epidemic and Thursdays will be reserved for regular Government business. "COVID-19-related measures will be adopted on Wednesday and enter into force on Monday, so that everyone affected will have enough time to prepare," he said. He also stressed that, in terms of numbers, we are somewhere along the lines of EU countries. "Fluctuations in numbers in certain countries are partly due to the fact that some of them do not record their statistics on a daily basis but over a period of several days. Our statistics are recorded daily," said the Prime Minister, adding that many European countries are currently extending measures. "Germany has extended measures until at least the end of January, and some countries, such as the Netherlands, which have seen a post-holiday surge that they cannot quite explain, have extended certain measures until the end of February. And we are formally precluded from adopting any measure that remains in force for more than a week, due to two decisions of the Constitutional Court, which are very peculiar."

When asked whether he trusted Minister Kustec, the Prime Minister said that the Ministers enjoy his trust for as long as they remain Minsters, and that he is hopeful that we will get a new Minister of Health as soon as possible. He also said that this is the first time he is hearing about Slovenia not being willing to accept the Moderna vaccine. "Quite the opposite, we ordered another million doses of the vaccine and are still discussing this number today; wherever we can find more vaccine and obtain it as soon as possible, we order it. If something like that has happened, we will look into it," said the Prime Minister. "As regards the rapid test contract, I did not read it as it was signed by the former Minister. As regards the Agency supposedly invalidating the tests, it is not true and I don't know why this keeps coming up even though the Agency has published its opinion on its website. Faults were found on a pack of swabs and everything was checked promptly. When I took over the Ministry, I immediately ordered a validation of tests carried out, which turned out to be within the norm, and another validation is underway, with the Agency checking the shipments on a regular basis. A letter was also sent to everyone using the tests, instructing them to immediately report any deficiency to the Agency, which will look into it," said Prime Minister Janša.

He went on to say that the population should start feeling the effects of the vaccination in February; regarding the end of the epidemic, any prognosis that it will end before spring is exaggerated. According to the Prime Minister, interest in the vaccination is extremely high, despite surveys showing that some people do not want it. "The willingness to be vaccinated in the category of people over 65 years of age, who are most at risk, is very high," said the Prime Minister, emphasising that 60-percent vaccination coverage is important to ensure that everyone can live normally and that other measures to stop the virus will not be necessary. "The percentage of vaccination coverage will represent the percentage of Slovenian solidarity – the number of people vaccinated will be the percentage of solidarity in Slovenia," said the Prime Minister.

Prime Minister Janša also responded to a question regarding the constructive no-confidence motion announced by the so-called KUL Coalition. "I believe a no-confidence motion has been in the air since April last year; not even a month had passed from when the Government was sworn in and the Social Democrats already announced a constructive no-confidence motion. Since then, I have been hearing analysts say that this is unusual in an epidemic but that the procedure must be respected. Yet it hasn't happened yet. It begins when someone actually files a no-confidence motion in accordance with the Constitution, an Act or rules of procedure. If that happens on 15 January and a session is held a week from then, as anticipated, I have to say that the parties have a better overview of the epidemic than it seems based on suspension proposals. We are expected to be at the peak of the surge then, which we actually will be with the measures in place, which are not the strictest – some European countries have restricted movement to up to 50 metres from one’s apartment; you can go out to get some air, to the pharmacy or the shop. We don't have that in Slovenia. If such measures were introduced, I suspect that the virus could be contained much better, but I doubt that we as a society could endure that without conflict. However, if the numbers are not under control next week, it is clear that the epidemic will peak right at the time when some are counting on a discussion on a constructive no-confidence motion, which means that it is being used for political purposes. The procedure is legitimate, but as for its moral basis and background, you can be the judge of that," said the Prime Minister. "The people who want to form a new Government are the people who have already been in power, the same party presidents who were not even elected into parliament and preach democracy and constitutionality. It is interesting, however, that they say they will do everything in a year and a half during an epidemic that they failed to do at the beginning of their term of office in a year and a half without an epidemic. Anyone who believes that can choose to do so, but it is never going to happen. We are doing our best not to let it bother us, but a part of the public is very bothered. Nevertheless, I believe that this Government will continue to work normally even after 15 or 21 January, that we will halt the epidemic, and that we will finish our term of office successfully," he concluded.