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Prime Minister Janez Janša: The general epidemiological situation in Slovenia is not good, so all the preventive measures still need to be adhered to strictly

“The Slovenian Government had already adopted a roadmap to ease or tighten measures at the beginning of December, given that we were already in the second wave of infections, and this plan was revised at the beginning of January according to the situation that developed.

This plan is well-known and has been presented many times, and all the measures that the Government adopts have been foreseen in advance. Even the markers to relax measures by individual statistical region were made public during this period, and new data was entered on an ongoing basis. There are practically no unknowns regarding the regional situations,” said the Prime Minister. He stated that public dilemmas have often arisen regarding the general requirements at the national level that have to be met in order to even begin to relax measures at the regional level. “Most recently such concern has arisen in connection with the Koroška (Carinthia) region, which after recording a large number of infections at the start of the second wave has now significantly improved on the Slovenian or national average, and would have now already met the requirements for the relaxation of measures in the orange phase if the entire country had met the requirements for transition to the orange phase,” added the Prime Minister. He also reminded everyone who is asking what measures will apply in the future to monitor the data and infographics “on our website, and then it is simple to determine in advance what type of measures are going to apply in a particular region given the projected trends.”

“Unfortunately the general epidemiological situation in Slovenia is not good. We would be happy if the situation in the entire country resembled that of Koroška in terms of infections, or was even better. That is why, when deciding on the relaxation or tightening of measures, the Government must also always observe the relevant trends in addition to the static picture on a particular cut-off date (which occurs every Tuesday). There have also been many questions raised, especially regarding the decision to open schools, as to why when a particular threshold is only exceeded by a few infections, or that threshold is close to being met, a certain tolerance criterion cannot be used. That criterion can only be used in cases when the general trends are positive, good or indicate a downward trend of infections at the national level as well as in individual regions. However, if the trends are not good and we are witnessing a growing number of infections or stagnation, it does not make sense to consider major deviations to the roadmap for relaxation of measures, as that would soon bring chaos, which is the last thing we all want,” explained the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister then emphasised that the option of care for children attending the first three years of primary school would be added next week, including remote learning in the regions that are still marked as black, and where classes for these children cannot be held at school. “This exception applies to all cases where both parents (or one parent in the case of single-parent families) work in critical infrastructure activities, the education sector, for the police or the Slovenian armed forces. These activities, which are critical and must be carried out continuously (without interruption) even during the epidemic, can run smoothly. In cases where a family could otherwise not be able to provide care for their children or assistance during remote learning, this is enabled nation-wide, even where classes for the first three years of primary school and general child care in kindergarten are otherwise not being provided,” said the Prime Minister, who added that there were also a few dilemmas associated with Mondays, as that day was reserved for mandatory testing of all those who would teach the children in the classes.

“When discussing the situation on Wednesday, the Government did not have all the elements available to it to make a final decision on whether it would be possible to carry out the school classes and testing simultaneously. The Principals’ Association assisted us in resolving this dilemma. They conducted a survey in these regions, in which more than 80% of schools responded positively, stating that they were capable of holding classes and re-testing teachers simultaneously on the same day. The ordinance was thus amended today, making it possible to hold classes on Monday for the first three years of primary school alongside the testing,” explained the Prime Minister, who added that “we appealed to all the testing providers to coordinate with the principals and local governments on the best possible method and timetable to complete both tasks.” “We recognise that this is probably not possible everywhere, and that some schools will have to conduct remote lessons. However, we expect this to be possible in most cases. Where such testing could be conducted one day in advance, i.e. on Sunday, such tests would also be valid. This way we still gain another school day for the first three years of primary school in most of the country,” emphasised Prime Minister Janša.

The Prime Minister then addressed questions connected with vaccinations, primarily issues regarding the vaccines that are available or will be available, and regarding developments at the European level, where an issue arose between the European Commission as the party ordering the vaccine and the vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca. “To date more than 76,000 vaccine doses have been supplied to Slovenia, and the great majority of them have been used, in the most recent wave primarily as the second vaccine dose, for the most vulnerable groups. More than 110,000 doses of the vaccines that have already been approved (Pfizer-BionTech and Moderna) are scheduled to be supplied by the end of February. Pfizer-BionTech in particular is expected to increase the number of supplied doses practically on a weekly basis in February, which is positive data in comparison with various other discouraging information that has been provided to us in past weeks. Moderna also guarantees the reliable delivery of all these quantities. However, the quantity to be delivered by AstraZeneca is still undefined. This quantity represents around 80,000 doses for Slovenia but remains uncertain, as the European Medicines Agency is expected to reach a decision today as to whether to approve the vaccine. The approval itself will not be a final guarantee of these deliveries, and as such our vaccination programme, currently in place for February, is definitely counting on the deliveries from those manufacturers whose vaccines have already been approved and have also been used for vaccination, i.e. Pfizer-Biontech and Moderna. Anything that comes from AstraZeneca will be incorporated subsequently,” said the Prime Minister. According to Janša, there is encouraging information regarding vaccines manufactured by Johnson&Johnson, which are in the final phase of testing and for which the European Medicines Agency is expected to receive official applications for assessment and approval in the coming weeks. A few hundred million doses of these vaccines have been ordered by the European Commission, and after they are approved there will certainly be a significant correction to the quantities in our vaccination programme.

“In response to the question of whether Slovenia is still expected to reach 70% vaccination coverage I would have to say yes,” continued Prime Minister Janša, adding that even if only the two companies with the approved vaccines that we are already using were to supply the promised quantities, we could definitely approach this percentage. “With respect to the other vaccines still in the approval phase it is very likely that at least one will be approved and will commence supply in large quantities in the coming weeks, which additionally increases our optimism. Unfortunately, most of these announcements or already guaranteed deliveries are focused on the second quarter, i.e. the months from March onwards, meaning that, and this is bad news, we cannot realistically count on the vaccination coverage in the first quarter of this year having a significant impact on curbing the epidemic. So unfortunately at this time it is all the more important to adhere closely to all preventive measures, limit contact with others to a minimum, and use all the recommended protection during contacts,” explained the Prime Minister, who added that we need to recognise that the UK strain of the virus has also spread throughout Slovenia, that it is more contagious, spreads more quickly, and that the first case of this strain was already officially recognised in Slovenia in December, unfortunately too late. “According to the information we receive practically daily from our colleagues from other countries, the UK strain of the virus will be the most prevalent strain across Europe in the coming weeks, which will therefore require even stricter measures and greater caution. Therefore, unfortunately, any significant relaxation of the measures cannot be expected in the next few weeks. We also cannot expect major improvements in the situation without imposing additional measures,” stated the Prime Minister. He also brought attention to a comparison with various European countries which clearly shows that Europe and other countries are witnessing the drastic and intensive behaviour of this virus over different periods with different levels of intensity. “Currently Portugal, which is undergoing a serious crisis, has been hit hardest. But other countries are also reporting the rapid spreading of the UK strain of the virus, issuing daily announcements of additional restrictive measures throughout Europe, restrictions on travel, and the tightening of regimes regarding entry into other countries. This is the current reality and no significant improvements are expected in Europe in the coming weeks. However, despite the UK strain, we can all work together to ensure that the curves point downwards, that the capacities of our healthcare system will not be overwhelmed, and that we will not be forced to pay a steep price for the epidemic in terms of collateral damage,” explained the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister reiterated his call for cooperation. He also called on the mayors of Slovenian municipalities to do everything necessary at the local level to ensure that the measures are observed and that adherence to such measures is monitored. The civil defence force also plays an important role in this respect. “As regards the roadmap to easing the measures, which is regional at present and is supposed to be upgraded to the level of municipalities in the future, whether we ease or tighten the restrictions also depends on whether or not the local governments organise themselves so that we will be able to endure the time when the measures are actually needed without any further restrictions,” said the Prime Minister, who added that on this basis we will continue to strictly observe and monitor the measures already in place, which will be reflected in faster normalisation of public life in in the individual regions and municipalities. He also called for the cooperation of the Slovenian media. “Media coverage of all measures is negative, and this does not contribute to the containment of the epidemic. We all feel the impact of these restrictions, but the truth is that if we all cooperate, the virus will spread more slowly, we will contain it and the measures simply will not be necessary,” he said, adding that “if we ever need cooperation it is now, when we know that the coming weeks will be extremely demanding and that we are actually speaking about a third wave due to the UK variant of the virus spreading around Europe and in Slovenia. The more cooperation there is, the greater the awareness of responsibility that we share, the more we will be able to shorten the time of these measures that no one likes,” said the Prime Minister.

Prime Minister Janša also reacted to the news coverage in some media claiming that the Government yesterday blocked its consent to university enrolment. “This is not true. The Government did not discuss the matter. The Ministry of Education sent the relevant documents a few days ago. These are strategic decisions and it makes no sense to handle them the way our predecessors did, which ended up with thousands of young people without any employment opportunities both in Slovenia and on the single European market. It doesn’t help us if we write in resolutions and European commitments that we will become digital, green, advanced, and innovative, if we do not enrol as many students under these profiles as we need in our schools,” said the Prime Minister. “We can swear a hundred times how seriously we will take the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution, artificial intelligence and digitalisation, but if we don’t enable young people to enrol in sufficient numbers in computer science and IT courses, as key professions of the future, it does not help,” he said, and added that enrolment targets in higher and university education is one of the country’s fundamental strategic development documents. “We don’t know whether the proposal that the Ministry of Education sent past the deadline is good or bad. The relevant Government committee has not even had the opportunity to debate it during this time; we are not talking about assessments and decisions, but rather that a responsible approach is needed. I have asked the Minister of Education to examine why the delay occurred, and we have instructed the Ministry of Labour to present the needs of the Slovenian business sector, public sector and the state according to specific profiles by next week, and the Government will take all these elements into account.”

“The enrolment spaces at public higher education institutions are not a collection of wishes of those who run those institutions, but a national strategic development document that needs to be taken seriously, and this is what we did during all terms of office during which I led the Government. We corrected the imbalances in the 2004-2008 term, and the Government will look at the current proposal next week and discuss it very seriously.”

All those who say that the deadline for publishing this document is 1 February should have asked themselves why they failed to draw up this proposal earlier. “In any case, this is one of the Government’s most important decisions as regards the future development strategy, and the Government will fulfil its responsibility as it should,” concluded Prime Minister Janša.

The Prime Minister then took questions from the press.

As regards the vaccination schedules, the Prime Minister said that the actual vaccination programme always contains only vaccines that have already been approved and where there are no complications; in this particular case these are Pfizer-BionTech and Moderna. “And any instructions that go forward are also based on the number of deliveries,” said the Prime Minister, He said that the delivered quantity of AstraZeneca vaccines is significantly lower than announced, and added that “we do not take even this amount as a fact; we don’t know whether it will hold or not, and therefore we can’t count on it one hundred percent. Major problems are expected between the EC and the EU and this producer in the future, if at least these last quantities are not delivered,” said the Prime Minister. He also added that all kinds of offers are being received for vaccines from this producer in terms of deliveries outside the joint European vaccine purchase. “There is something going on that we don’t like, and the European Commission has warned us about it. Administrative measures are being drafted since this company has manufacturing plants in Europe, and at least part of this complication will be resolved,” said the Prime Minister. In his opinion, in the first half of the year it will be possible to count more seriously on the Johnson&Johnson vaccine. “Initiatives have also been undertaken to increase deliveries from some other producers if the dispute with AstraZeneca continues, but as stated already, Slovenia is seriously relying on 110,000 doses in February from both producers already supplying us. Everything above that will be subsequently included in our programme,” said the Prime Minister, who added

that as far as the measures are concerned, everything is set out in the roadmap to ease measures and the Government will adhere to it. “The trends regarding the infection rates haven’t been good this week. Those regarding the hospital bed occupancy rates have been better. There is minimal room for manoeuvre, but the Government will look at the trends next Wednesday and decide if the roadmap will need to be amended. What's different now compared to the time when we adopted the roadmap is the fact that at that time there was no serious suspicion of the presence of the UK variant of the virus, and that this can change the situation and requires us to amend the roadmap to ease measures in the coming days,” he said.

He also answered the questions in connection with the nomination of a new minister of health. “I don't know where the speculation about the transfer of the temporary performance of this function comes from, as no such possibility exists,” the prime minister said. “It is true that when the DeSUS’s minister Tomaž Gantar resigned amid the worst wave of the epidemic, the coalition discussed who would temporarily perform that function and whether it would make sense to appoint a new candidate immediately, the name of the Minister of Defence, Matej Tonin, was mentioned; however, we reached a joint decision that it would be most reasonable that I assume the function and propose a minister for this position as soon as the situation resulting from the decision of the DeSUS Council to leave the coalition is resolved. The fact that the distribution of power and support to the Government are not decided by individual parties but by members of parliament, and since the situation regarding the status or position of the DeSUS Party and all its deputies is not yet clear, is the main reason why I haven’t proposed a new minister of health, because we want to resolve this in a single step,” said the Prime Minister. "If the majority of MPs from the DeSUS Party no longer support the Government, then the status of the Ministry of Agriculture, which belongs to this party under the terms of the coalition agreement, should be reconsidered. The minister and the DeSUS deputies should decide by mid-week next week whether they will work with the Government, in the Government, or whether they are a classical opposition party without any minister in the Government. It will be clearer from the middle of next week whether I will send one or two proposals for new ministers to the National Assembly,” said the Prime Minister.

As regards school opening and closing, the Prime Minister reiterated that the Government takes actions on the basis of the roadmap, which clearly states when schools may reopen or when remote and in-person learning is carried out. “We have said many times that in view of the current situation, schools may be open one week and distance learning will take place the next. Unfortunately, this will remain the case for the foreseeable future. I know this is an additional complication, requiring effort and work for principals, parents, and local governments, but there are hundreds of thousands new contacts in schools, and given the situation in which we find ourselves, it is clear that we don’t have much room for manoeuvre in order to experiment,” said the Prime Minister. “When we analyse the situation each Wednesday, we don't just look at the figures for the regions for that specific week, but also at trends. If the trends were different and were showing a declining rate of infections, so that we expect that a region marked as black today would certainly be red on Monday and that the situation would change in the whole country, then the tolerance factor would be significantly higher. However, if we receive data showing that the number of infections has increased in the last three days, if we receive the information that the UK variant of the virus has been present in Slovenia since December, then this tolerance factor cannot go in the direction of relaxation, but rather in the direction of tightening,” said the Prime Minister. “I urge everyone to prepare for this situation, and in view of the fact that in accordance with the decision of the Constitutional Court, the Government is obliged to change its decisions every week and adjust them accordingly, I would like to reiterate that there are no big secrets, since we have the roadmap to ease measurements, we publish the data by region and anyone who compares the data can see what the trends are and knows what will follow next week, so there is no need to wait for the Government session,” he added.

As regards compensation for sick leave due to coronavirus, the Prime Minister said that most other countries are less generous than Slovenia regarding such compensation. “There are rumours, however, that some employers are forcing those who had symptoms to come to work; inspectors have checked this but there has been no confirmation so far,” said Prime Minister Janša. He also added that on the basis of the latest survey data on where people have contracted the virus, most of the respondents have said they don’t know or they don’t want to say, and this is by far the highest percentage. “In view of the current situation, the measures put in place and how the businesses are performing, the workplace is one of the places where the risk of spreading infections is highest, and therefore the health and labour inspectorates will increase the level of monitoring in the coming weeks,” said the Prime Minister. “I call upon all those responsible to make sure that the work process is carried out in accordance with the recommendations of the National Institute of Public Health and in line with the rules of occupational medicine," he said, thanking the employers who have organised rapid testing, who are carefully monitoring the situation in their teams and reacting promptly when any infections occur, rather than leaving it to the responsibility of individuals or to chance.

“We are all aware of the damage caused by the epidemic and that the damage is distributed differently in specific categories of the population. Any damage is regrettable, but there is damage that can be repaired and there is damage that cannot be repaired” said the Prime Minister in response to a question about how harmful the epidemic is to children. “If someone gets seriously ill and has consequences for a long time or even a lifetime, if someone dies, this is irreparable damage” said the Prime Minister.

“The measures that we have put in place are working. If they didn't, then we would have much higher numbers,” he said when asked if the Government needs to change its strategy. “It is also not true that we are all adhering to the measures, since if we were, the numbers would be significantly lower. The virus isn’t spreading on its own; it is spread by people. If we all adhered to basic hygiene measures and did not socialise, or were in our own bubbles where we have to socialise and adhered to the recommendations, we would have no virus in the country. But since this is not the case, as 5% of people have a nonchalant attitude towards the measures, we have the situation that we have,” he said, adding that the strategy itself has no alternative. “Even Sweden, which launched an alternative disinfection strategy, has abandoned it,” he added. “The only way is to understand the seriousness of the situation and to be patient. And we are not in a vicious circle. When there was no vaccine we could have said that we could expect to go from one wave to another, but now when the vaccine is available I believe that the potential third wave may be the last one, and that we will stop the epidemic and the spread of the virus by the beginning of summer through a sufficient vaccination rate,” he said, adding that efforts are being taken to vaccinate as many people as possible with the priority on the most vulnerable groups, where the damage is the largest; no vaccine is waiting, it is all being used immediately and we are shortening the time to the desired target for a sufficient vaccination rate. “We encourage other countries to do the same,” said Prime Minister Janša.

As regards the UK strain of coronavirus and the extent of the spread of this strain in our country, the Prime Minister said that clear evidence was not available, though some conclusions could be drawn from what has happened in other countries. “The way this virus is detected is currently being reorganised, so we will be able to monitor it more closely with all the laboratories at our disposal. According to the consultations I have held with my colleagues from other European countries, no specific action plan is in place targeting only the UK variant of the virus, other than tightening the restrictions if the situation deteriorates. However, it is true that other mutations of the virus are circulating, and I expect that our experts will use all available capacities so that we will not be as late to identify them as we were with the identification of the UK variant, which practically all of the other countries identified before Slovenia.”

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