Prime Minister Janez Janša: 3 million doses of vaccine guaranteed for 1,600,000 citizens this year
Prime Minister Janez Janša and Labour, Family, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities Minister Janez Cigler Kralj held a press conference today in Brdo pri Kranju to provide an update on vaccination against COVID-19 and present the eighth coronavirus relief package designed to mitigate the consequences of the epidemic.
“The figures we have today regarding COVID-19 vaccination are better than those from last week, now that the European Medicines Agency has finally given the go-ahead for a sixth dose to be extracted from vials of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine. This vaccine was the first to be approved, and the one that Europe and Slovenia have ordered the largest quantities of,” began the Prime Minister, adding that the go-ahead from the EMA has effectively increased the number of doses available by 20%. “Not only that, but last week the European Commission put in another order for large quantities of the vaccine,” continued the Prime Minister. “Slovenia has, at all events, secured the percentage share it is entitled to on the basis of the size of its population, in other words 0.47% of the European Commission’s total order, but we are nevertheless endeavouring to obtain more: twice as much, to be precise.” Mr Janša noted that Slovenia has so far always managed to secure more than the share assigned to it on the basis of population alone and underlined that over two and a half million doses have been ordered and already approved for Slovenia from Pfizer and BioNTech, along with almost half a million doses from Moderna: “The total number of doses for Slovenia is over three million. Since two doses are needed, this means that with the deliveries of the vaccines that have already been approved and are already in use, we have enough doses to vaccinate 1,600,000 people this year.” The Prime Minister added that at least three more vaccines are currently under review, with AstraZeneca’s closest to approval. A decision on the latter is expected from European Medicines Agency on 29 January. “This vaccine is easier to use and also simpler to produce, since it is a conventional vaccine and will be available in very large quantities in the first half of the year. We have reserved and ordered 1,400,000 doses, and these have also been approved by the European Commission," said the Prime Minister.
Forecasts of vaccine deliveries by quarters have also been amended, the Prime Minister explained. “This week there has been some disruption of deliveries of the Pfizer vaccine as a result of modifications to the production process in Belgium, designed to increase capacity. This has meant fewer shipments this week, but the company promises that not only will this shortfall be made up over the following weeks, but shipments already ordered will increase in February, which is good news,” said the Prime Minister, adding that all doses ordered in the first quarter of the year will in any case be delivered as promised, given the additional capacities being built at two locations in Belgium and several more locations in Germany.
“The second quarter is also important,” the Prime Minister continued. “With the realisation of these deliveries in the second quarter, we can count on Slovenia reaching a 70% vaccination rate by the beginning of the summer, which means that we will have practically stemmed the epidemic, at least within our own borders,” he said, adding that it is particularly significant that in the second quarter of this year the bulk of scheduled deliveries are of the vaccine that we are already using, in other words not one that we are waiting to see whether or not it will be approved, but a tried and tested vaccine.
The Prime Minister went on to explain that since 27 December, when Slovenia began vaccinating the elderly and healthcare personnel, the country has also gained a certain amount of experience with vaccination. “Vaccination in old people’s homes has been extremely successful, while the response in healthcare institutions has been better than initially announced. There have been some misunderstandings about what happens in the event that doses are left over, and whether those administering vaccines are allowed to make decisions on vaccination. In some cases the instructions have been interpreted too broadly. As soon as we started to receive notifications of this, the health inspectorate began carrying out the necessary checks.” The Prime Minister went on to clarify the instructions, to avoid the possibility of doubt among the general public. “The order of priority laid down in the national vaccination strategy, which was adopted and published on 3 December and which is based on the European strategy, is being consistently observed. The strategy is based on the principle that the vaccine will be given first to those who are most at risk and in greater danger of contracting a severe form of the disease. On the basis of these two criteria, each individual doctor can make an autonomous decision using their professional judgement with regard to the order of priority within the age category whose turn it is to be vaccinated. If there are any doubts as to how this works, the matter is really quite simple, particularly now, when – given the number of doses of vaccine available – these cases are relatively few. In other words, it is not a problem if someone fails to keep their vaccination appointment, which is something that can always happen, but everyone administrating the vaccine must have a pre-prepared list setting out the priority order within the same category, which means that if someone misses their appointment, that vaccine does not go to waste, but instead goes to the next person on the list.” The Prime Minister emphasised that there is no room here for ambiguity or other interpretations, “particularly in this period, when interest significantly outstrips the quantity of vaccines available.”
“A little while ago,” Mr Janša continued, “the European Medicines Agency published an instruction regarding the extraction of a sixth dose from vials of the Pfizer vaccine. It therefore goes without saying that all six doses should be used. Since the publication of this instruction, there can be no more doubt in this regard. It is also extremely important to keep consistent records. Data must be entered in the database that has been set up and is fully operational, and which allows us to see online on a daily basis how many vaccines have been administered.” The Prime Minister warned that there have been some delays with the inputting of data, as a result of data not being transferred from local databases to the central database, but that the situation has already improved significantly in recent days. “Accurate records are essential,” explained the Prime Minister, “because this is a double vaccination, where everyone has to be vaccinated twice, and we need to know who has been vaccinated and with what vaccine. We cannot allow any mistakes here, so accuracy is extremely important.”
The Prime Minister then talked about the latest figures regarding European vaccine orders. The European Commission has ordered almost 2.5 billion doses, “or more than are needed to vaccinate everyone in the EU this year. This means that later on, once all Europeans have been vaccinated, the EU will be able to offer help to neighbouring countries outside the EU and beyond,” said Mr Janša, adding that the government has now appointed Jelko Kacin as national coordinator of vaccination logistics. “Coordinating national vaccination logistics will be particularly important once we start to receive larger quantities of vaccine. We hope that this will be as soon as possible, and a special plan is being drawn up for this period, on the basis of which mass vaccination will take place in significantly more locations according to the priority groups defined in the national strategy, and then in order of registrations of interest from the electronic application.”
Regarding the preparation of the eighth coronavirus relief package, the Prime Minister explained that the aim of the package is to preserve jobs and employment and keep Slovenia’s economy afloat. “This will be the core of the package. There will also be a few other measures and automatically extended deadlines, but this package will not contain additional measures for the targeted mitigation of the consequences of the epidemic in individual sectors of the economy, because of the presence of two unknowns – figures that are still being collected for last year and are due to be published at the end of the month, and forecasts about the length of time that these measures will need to remain in force. By next month, when we will have a clearer picture of how quickly vaccination is slowing the epidemic, it will be easier to calculate how long individual measures will still need to be maintained and how long the epidemic will last,” said the Prime Minister. He added that proposals designed to specifically address sectors that have already been affected or closed for some time are currently being collected, and that efforts are being made to find innovative solutions on the basis of which it will be possible not only to keep a specific sector alive, but also to make improvements in areas that are lacking. “The focus of the eighth coronavirus relief package is on preserving jobs,” said the Prime Minister, explaining that the package also addresses an emerging problem that is particularly affecting Slovenia’s industrial sector as a consequence of the compulsory increase in the minimum wage: “We will attempt to alleviate this problem so that we do not lose thousands of jobs, which in any case we need, and I think Slovenia’s economy needs them too.”
Mr Janša ended his remarks by noting that the first rapid comparison of measures adopted in Slovenia last year and those adopted by other European countries has been published online and shows that Slovenia has provided the thickest cushion to mitigate the consequences of the epidemic. “We have by far the largest number of measures and are the only country in Europe that has taken all categories into account, in some cases including them in several measures, and we have also been very generous as regards direct assistance to citizens,” said the Prime Minister, adding that Slovenia is also in the top half of the country ranking as regards the unemployment rate. “Unemployment growth in December last year was actually lower than a year earlier, before the crisis began, and even weekly figures on new employment in Slovenia show that the labour market is very fluid in both directions, that the economy is alive and kicking, that people are finding jobs and it is not all about people losing jobs. All this shows that for the time being we are maintaining the economy in good shape,” concluded the Prime Minister.
Moving on, the Prime Minister answered numerous questions from journalists, beginning with questions about the sixth dose of the vaccine. “When the first round of mass vaccinations began, the European Medicines Agency had not yet issued an opinion on a sixth dose, so only five doses were used from each vial. Since receiving the instruction, however, it is possible to extract six doses, and these extra doses are now being input into the vaccination system. At this moment I do not have precise figures regarding the use of fifth or sixth doses, but this is something that can be calculated retrospectively because all vaccinations are recorded,” said the Prime Minister, adding that the health inspectorate is treating the supervision of vaccination as a priority and that instructions were sent out again today to all those administering vaccines, just to make sure that everything is clear, which means that there simply should not be any problems here. “As regards the price, we are paying the price that was agreed at the outset, although we have heard that the manufacturer is considering changing the basic price following the publication of the EMA opinion on the sixth dose. Nothing formal has yet been signed, and in any case this is a less important issue at this moment. The Pfizer vaccine is not the most expensive one, more expensive is the one that is least available. Every dose we receive is used immediately and represents a saving, given that it is helping us stop the epidemic,” said Mr Janša, adding that every dose is precious “because it is not only important that we vaccinate, but that we vaccinate those most at risk in the order defined in the vaccination strategy, and that in the event of someone failing to come to their vaccination appointment, even that dose will nevertheless be used. It is also very important to vaccinate immediately. This means that if we get the vaccine on Monday, it is extremely important that we use it by Wednesday. This was not fully understood at the very beginning, so we are also tightening up the logistics.” The Prime Minister went on to say that “it is in all of our interest to use all the doses we receive as soon as possible, because at this moment interest is at a higher level. The sooner someone is vaccinated, the sooner they are protected, and the sooner they are protected, the less chance there is for infections to increase.” The Prime Minister also reiterated that good organisation of the vaccination campaign will allow us to reduce the duration of the epidemic by up to a month. “The categories have not changed since the adoption of the national vaccination strategy,” said Mr Janša, adding that medical personnel in the army have already been vaccinated because they belong to the category of all health workers.
With regard to the new UK variant of the coronavirus that was discovered today, the Prime Minister said that he is sure that this variant was already present in Slovenia, since it has been already detected in all the countries around us. “Other European countries have established that the variant was already present in their territory before they detected it,” Mr Janša said, adding that in Slovenia the variant was detected in a passenger at the airport and expressing the hope that there were no opportunities there for it to spread.
“Regarding restrictions and whether we will be passing from the black phase to the red phase, that is something that we will see tomorrow on the basis of the figures from today. The government will take this into account tomorrow when deciding on measures and on the situation, but in view of the trends we are optimistic. It is in our interest to maintain this rapid downward curve and to accelerate it as much as possible. The forecasts made on the basis of the last five or six days are proving to be accurate, although this still means that we will have to wait until well into February before we reach the orange phase. The orange phase is the one where we can start lifting the severest restrictions in most of the country,” said Mr Janša.
“Data on the severity of the measures we have implemented reveal that Slovenia is far from being the country with the longest and severest restrictions. We are actually somewhere in the middle, which indicates that the majority of countries in a similar situation to ours in the last two months have for the most part implemented heavier and more drastic measures to try and stop the epidemic. The majority of these countries also imposed restrictions more quickly, while we sought a balance designed to ensure that the pressure of the epidemic did not overwhelm the capacities of our healthcare system. For the moment we have been successful, although in order to judge how successful we have been overall, we will have to wait for final balance,” said the Prime Minister.
Mr Janša went on to say that the figures for yesterday show that the country appears to be heading into the red phase, but “we are not going to predict what will happen on Monday”. If it does happen, conditions will be right to begin lifting restrictions in individual regions, and for children to return to schools and nurseries under the so-called C programme, which means that classes will be smaller and social distancing will continue to be observed. In the view of current trends, however, a greater relaxation of measures is not to be expected: “For the time being we are on the borderline as regards the lifting of restrictions, and if we cross that border this will only mean lifting the first restrictions at the regional level, not across the country. We also need to consider the fact that there is no point lifting restrictions for one week if we then have to close everything down again. That doesn’t achieve anything and simply places a burden on teachers, parents, children and everyone involved in carrying out rapid testing.”
“For as long as neighbouring countries are in a better epidemiological situation than us,” continued the Prime Minister, “there is no point in us tightening controls in terms of arrivals, although even now border controls are stringent, since it is impossible to enter the country without testing and we have shortened the list of exceptions. If the situation reverses and we are in a better situation than our neighbours and other countries, we will of course introduce stricter criteria, because we will not want to spoil our greener picture by importing the virus from abroad. Here, every week counts,” said Mr Janša, in reference to measures at national border crossings. “It is from this point of view that the joint European effort to wipe out or contain the virus through rapid vaccination is so important, because we are not Israel or Great Britain or Singapore, we are not an island that can isolate itself totally, so it is in our interest to put an end to the epidemic in this country and also across Europe and elsewhere around the world,” said Mr Janša.
Regarding the national COVID-19 recovery plan, the Prime Minister emphasised that “we are waiting for Brussels, where the regulation that will allow us to submit our plan has not yet been adopted, although this should happen before the end of February. The government adopted a draft of the plan in December and this is currently being coordinated in detail with the European Commission, although we cannot formally submit it. The deadline is April, and until then the plan will not be operational. Given the enormous size of the task and the amounts of money involved, this is a plan that must be given the most careful consideration. We have already discussed it twice and are due to discuss it once more before it is finally approved. Much depends on this plan, including how resistant Slovenia will be to future crises and dangers, the challenges of an ageing population, and how successful we are at overcoming the development lag of the last 12 years with the help of European funds. This plan is more important than an annual or biennial budget, and we are making sure that we give it the attention it deserves.”
Asked about the 70% vaccination coverage rate, the Prime Minister answered that there are two targets for Europe: “The first target is to protect all healthcare workers and everyone directly involved with the COVID-19 epidemic, along with everyone over the age of 80, throughout Europe, by March. The second is to achieve a vaccination coverage rate of at least 70% of the population by the summer. These two targets will be put to the European Council as proposals for discussion this Thursday. Given the figures on vaccines for Europe and current trends, I consider these targets to be realistic. I also believe that as long as vaccine shipments arrive as scheduled, we may be able to anticipate the achievement of these targets in Slovenia by a month or more. As regards the last phase of vaccination, that will depend on all of us. Vaccination is voluntary and the 70% vaccination target must be viewed accordingly.”
Regarding the COVID-19 vaccination passport, the Prime Minister noted that even today, when travelling around the world, you need a vaccination booklet to confirm that you have been vaccinated against yellow fever, malaria, and so on. “This isn’t something new,” he said, adding that vaccination passport is not, however, a solution that is going to be introduced tomorrow. “It will be possible to introduce it once the vaccine is available to everyone, because as long as you only have the vaccine for specific categories, you cannot apply that condition to access to goods that in principle are accessible to everyone, or you have to offer an alternative such as testing.” In the Prime Minister’s opinion, a combination of testing and vaccination will probably be possible at some point.
Regarding the reliability of rapid tests, the Prime Minister said that the relevant figures and test results have been published by the competent institutions and that these data are available to everyone. “The competent institutions are finding that these tests are fit for the purpose for which they are being used, but no one has ever claimed that they are 100% reliable. Similar tests are being used throughout Europe. We have been carrying out rapid testing in Slovenia since April. To begin with it was not accessible to everyone the way it is now, but some businesses and old people’s homes introduced it earlier, using a variety of tests. European standards were not laid down until autumn and my predecessor decided not to prescribe criteria. It is in accordance with these criteria that these tests are being checked today. For the last two days we have been listening to [parliamentary health committee member] Dejan Židan as the main expert on rapid tests, but instead of listening to him I recommend listening to the competent institutions. As far as the government is concerned, we can also follow the advice of the competent institutions when it comes to the question of whether these tests are suitable for testing in schools.” The Prime Minister went on to explain that the percentage of positive results on the basis of the first rapid tests before the holidays was initially quite high, but has since fallen. He reiterated that if you get a negative result with a rapid test, this does not mean that you are 100% negative, but if the result is positive there is almost no chance that you are virus-free. Rapid tests do not pick up every single positive case, but they do pick up a lot of them.
Regarding the financial aspect of the coronavirus relief packages passed to date, the Prime Minister said that a large number of measures with financial effects had been adopted, but that some people had been excluded and those who benefited from one measure were unable to take advantage of others. “These amounts cannot simply be added together, and whenever we have calculated the financial effects, we have looked at the worst-case scenario: if everyone is affected and everyone benefits, it will cost so much. But we are glad that the consequences have not been as bad, that the first wave of the epidemic was significantly shorter, and that there was therefore less of a need to draw on financial reserves, which is clearly a good thing. Moving forward, we will also be very happy if out of the hundreds of millions set aside to mitigate the consequences of the epidemic, we end up spending less than expected, since this will mean that the consequences are less severe,” said the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister also commented on the withdrawal of the constructive no-confidence motion, describing it as the latest act in a tragicomedy. “Evidently the parties making up the Constitutional Arch Coalition are not interested in the formation of a new government. Perhaps their interest is in bringing down this government and then heading to the polls in the midst of the resulting chaos. This chaos is something we wished to avoid in the spring, which is one of the reasons why we formed this government, although from the point of view of the party it would have been better to have had an election, the party would have done better out of it, but together with our partners we decided that this would be bad for Slovenia and we therefore assumed this burden,” said Mr Janša, adding that “if those bent on bringing down the government were actually interested in saving Slovenia in a time of pandemic, they wouldn’t have thrown in the towel either at the beginning of last year or this year. Because that is exactly what has happened today. The towels being thrown in are multiplying and there will soon be a great pile of them.” Mr Janša described as “pathetic” the use, in the middle of an epidemic, of “a constitutional instrument that is designed to ensure that a period of political instability in the country is as brief as possible.” He reminded those present that when Slovenia’s constitution was being written, the instrument of a constructive no-confidence motion was copied from the German constitution out of a desire to avoid a change of government every six months, as used to happen in neighbouring Italy. “Although we all wanted democracy, we did not want the kind of democracy we could see at that time in the countries around us. That is why this instrument was added to the constitution, and even its name indicates that it envisages the replacement of one government with another. This means that whoever uses this instrument needs a majority, which in Slovenia means 46 votes, and if you don’t have that but go ahead and toy with it anyway, and do so in the middle of an epidemic, then you clearly do not love the country in which you are doing this,” concluded Mr Janša.