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Prime Minister Janez Janša on measures taken during the first and second waves of the COVID-19 epidemic

  • Former Prime Minister Janez Janša (2020 - 2022)

Prime Minister Janez Janša today attended the 2nd regular session of the Commission of Inquiry for determining the possible political responsibility of holders of public office for financially inappropriate measures and the allegedly unjustified restriction of rights in the implementation of measures related to the COVID-19 epidemic.

The Prime Minister answered questions from the Commission Chair and deputies on the measures taken by the Government to contain and limit the spread of coronavirus infections.

By way of introduction, Prime Minister Janša said that, on its first day in office, the Government had to deal with an epidemic. "In the first two weeks, we convened consultations in Cankarjev Dom with people on the front line, from community health centres, homes for the elderly, and the Civil Protection Service, which lacked equipment. The Advisory group on mitigating the social and economic consequences of the crisis, chaired by Dr Matej Lahovnik, was an ad hoc group that operated on a voluntary basis," the Prime Minister replied to questions relating to the work of the advisory groups last year. He added that the advisory group composed of epidemiologists had no powers to take any measures, but advised the Government on what measures to take. "The Government followed the proposals of the expert group to a large extent. Sometimes these experts were also present at the Government's sessions, not to decide or vote, but to give their opinion on individual measures," explained the Prime Minister. He said that all members of the advisory group were formally appointed by him, as laid down by the Government of the Republic of Slovenia Act. This advisory group now advises the Minister of Health, who proposes measures against the coronavirus. "At the time of the epidemic, with empty warehouses and a general crisis, it was not possible to take all the steps in a row, but we grouped certain levels together so that we could take measures on the same day," explained the Prime Minister.

He went on to say that, in June 2017, a WHO delegation visited Slovenia to check its preparedness for an epidemic against various criteria. "They gave Slovenia assessments and recommendations on what needed to be done to be ready for an epidemic. I should say that they gave us a rating of five for our legal basis for action, that is for the law on communicable diseases, which is now so criticised," said the Prime Minister. He also said that, on the day Slovenia declared the epidemic, the National Institute of Public Health functioned as if it were in the 19th century. "They had the data on slips of paper and passed them around. So we did not even have real data at our disposal at the time we needed to take action. Since March last year, we have been establishing a network so that decision-makers have the data they need to take action," he stressed. He also recalled that, in March last year, epidemiologists were in the minority at the National Institute of Public Health. "The epidemiologists who were thrown into the situation were burning out. So, in addition to the information system that did not provide real data, we had a shortage of staff at the start of the epidemic," said the Prime Minister.  He also recalled that the Government of Marjan Šarec adopted a decision on the purchase of protective equipment 27 days after (in February 2020) the epidemic was declared in neighbouring Italy, setting a deadline for the delivery of the protective equipment at the end of 2020. "On 13 March 2020, we had precisely 3210 FFP3 masks and 76,000 different surgical masks at different health institutions, and this was enough for exactly 8 hours. And, with the situation and the stocks as they were, the Government of Marjan Šarec adopted a decision to replenish stocks of protective equipment by December 2020," commented the Prime Minister.

Regarding the criticism about the fiscal sustainability of the measures, Prime Minister Janša stressed that the Fiscal Council assessed the measures as positive. In this context he highlighted the introduction of tourism vouchers, which the government gave to all residents. "When we made the calculations for the tourism sector, which was most affected in the crisis compared to other industries, we realised that if we had given the same amount of money intended for the vouchers directly to the tourism companies to cover their fixed costs, we would have only solved part of the social problems; the businesses would have closed and there would still be no activity. This is why we gave the vouchers to citizens. The Slovenian model of dealing with service activities has been considered innovative and good everywhere in Europe, and many European countries have followed this so-called voucher approach," said Prime Minister Janša. The Fiscal Council's recommendation is generally positive, especially as regards the Government's measures to preserve the stability of the economy and the fiscal system," stressed the Prime Minister, adding that the stability of a country's system is determined on the financial markets. "Slovenia has maintained its ratings on the financial markets and in some cases it has also significantly improved them. This is the first time in the country's history that we have issued bonds with a negative interest rate," clarified Prime Minister Janša.

As regards the measures taken after the first wave and before the beginning of the second wave of the epidemic, the Prime Minister explained that vaccines were not available at that time, which is why last year after the first wave everyone in Europe set great hopes on the electronic tracing application. "Experts in Europe were convinced that if we introduced an electronic application that warned of proximity to an infected person, we could avoid the lockdown, the spread of infections, deaths, etc. Before the second wave, we were also confronted with relentless figures. We have introduced mandatory masks, including in schools, but the opposition parties, with the exception of one of them, were against this measure; even the General Secretary of the Education, Science and Culture Trade Union of Slovenia opposed it and took the mask off his face saying that he could not breathe. And some deputies of the National Assembly did the same; the infections spread and there was nothing to be done but to introduce the lockdown," stressed the Prime Minister. But despite all the problems, Slovenia was one of the countries that did not transfer patients to other countries during the second wave. "The Netherlands, for example, praised as having the best healthcare system, had to transfer its patients to Germany during the second wave. Slovenia also managed to control the second wave because of the moral motivations of those who were burning out at that time," said Prime Minister Janša.

He also explained that the measure to restrict movement to municipalities was proposed by the expert advisory group. "We took these measures because Slovenia has a national and a municipal level, but not a regional level. Each municipality has its own civil protection headquarters and specific structures that made the implementation of the measure possible. If you looked around Europe at that time you could see what our alternative was – to lock people up in their homes," stated the Prime Minister, adding that other countries in Europe at that time restricted people’s movement to their flats or to two hours per day. He recalled his visit to Greece in May, when the residents of Athens had to report via an application where they were going if they left their flats.

"As for the profession: besides Slovenian experts, there are also experts in other European countries, there is also the European Commission with its Directorate General of Health, and we received information from all of them, as well. In comparison to other European countries, the measures in Slovenia were relatively mild. It is not true that our schools were closed for the longest period of time, just as it is not true that we had the most restrictive measures; it is also not true that we had the worst dictatorship. It is, however, true that most European countries have transferred their powers to take measures from the parliaments to the governments, so that the governments could act overnight, such as in Italy, France, in Poland and in Denmark. In those countries the measures were not discussed in parliament but were taken by the governments; in Italy, for example, the Prime Minister took full responsibility, while in our country the measures were adopted in the National Assembly," explained Prime Minister Janša.