Chancellor Merkel's Chief of Staff "Saturday Is a Crucial Day"

Helge Braun, 47, Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff, speaks with DER SPIEGEL about the rapidly rising number of coronavirus infections and about whether more stringent measures will have to be implemented.
Interview Conducted by Christoph Hickmann und Martin Knobbe
Chancellery Chief of Staff Helge Braun: "We have been speaking with virologists and epidemiologists every day."

Chancellery Chief of Staff Helge Braun: "We have been speaking with virologists and epidemiologists every day."

Foto: Peter Rigaud

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Braun, the number of people infected with the coronavirus is continuing to rise. Many people are not abiding by the restrictions imposed by the government. Is the lockdown coming?

Braun: For now, we are counting on people understanding the measures and their readiness to restrict their social lives. And when we look to our neighboring countries, which have already imposed curfews, it becomes clear: It would be an enormous additional burden. After all, very few people, especially in cities, have a backyard or a large piece of property. That’s why we are calling on everyone to take to heart and implement the measures decided so far. And that means refraining from all social contacts except the nuclear family if possible.

DER SPIEGEL: Despite all of the appeals, people were still out in parks this week, drinking together and picnicking in groups. What is your reaction to such things?

Braun: In those cases, the authorities and the police should take action. These kinds of unnecessary gatherings need to be broken up. That is, by the way, already a possibility, even without a lockdown.

DER SPIEGEL: Did you see the speech by Chancellor Angela Merkel this week as a final warning before a lockdown?

Braun: It was an urgent appeal in a very serious situation, the likes of which we have never experienced in our lifetimes. We, as Germany’s federal government, are working with complete transparency in this situation. We are releasing the numbers. We are informing people about the situation and about the needs of the health-care system. In response, we expect that the public trusts us and will not allow itself to be driven crazy by fake news and that it will follow our recommendations rigorously.

DER SPIEGEL: And if they don’t?

Braun: We will be looking at the behavior of the population this weekend. Saturday is a crucial day. We have our eye on that day in particular. People traditionally arrange to meet each other on Saturdays because they have the day off. But this unfortunately isn’t possible outside of the nuclear family right now. We have to stop meeting up with other people. If that doesn’t happen, decisions will have to be made by the federal states that we would prefer to avoid.

DER SPIEGEL: Shouldn’t you have imposed harsher measures earlier?

Braun: No. We have been speaking with virologists and epidemiologists every day. And one needs to understand that all of these measures are a heavy burden for the population. I don’t think people would have understood it if we had called for people to stay home when there were only 300 cases. We are now in the phase when the case numbers are growing rapidly. We need to slow it down. So the choice of measures is appropriate to this moment.

DER SPIEGEL: The chancellor is a scientist. You are a doctor. Did you nonetheless underestimate the danger?

Braun: When we saw the situation in Wuhan and observed how the numbers there went up exponentially, we were immediately alarmed and began talking to experts early on. As a result, we were able to do a good job of monitoring the cases among German citizens who were returning from China and successfully place them in quarantine. As a result, the spread from China was harmless. Then Italy also happened, and the carnival in the Heinsberg area (where a number of early infections in western Germany took place). It immediately became clear that these events would also fundamentally change the situation in Germany.

DER SPIEGEL: South Korea seems have the situation well under control. What can we learn from them?

Braun: There are also massive restrictions to public life there. And the South Korean population is very disciplined: The people are doing an excellent job of abiding by the restrictions. But there is also a second aspect: In South Korea, citizens log their locations with their cell phones. If an infection takes place, it’s possible to get a precise idea of who else might have become infected. These kinds of methods are difficult in Germany, because data protection plays a different role here. Nevertheless we will now consider whether a similar measure would also be possible on a voluntary basis.

DER SPIEGEL: The government is currently asking Germans to be highly disciplined, but isn’t providing any information at all about how long the restrictions might be in place. Are we talking about a few weeks, about three months, or will it continue into the fall?

Braun: I said that we want to inform people in a very clear and transparent manner. This also means that we must state clearly: We don't yet have an answer to that question. For now, the restrictions on public life will be in effect until April 20. We will only be able to evaluate the question of how things will continue afterwards in 10 to 14 days at the earliest. That is when we will begin seeing the extent to which the things we are doing now are flattening the infection curve. Then we will also understand what the next phase will look like.

DER SPIEGEL: What might it look like?

Braun: In the best case, there would be so few infections that the health-care system can easily handle them. Then the measures could slowly be loosened. Or are there still so many new infections that our health care system is overwhelmed? If that’s the case, we need to consider strengthening the restrictions or whether we can potentially better equip the health-care system. What is clear is that the measures we are pursuing now can only be implemented for a limited time. Until then, we must take steps to ensure that our health-care system is capable of managing the caseload.

DER SPIEGEL: And then?

Braun: At some point there will be a moment when we transition to so-called "reverse isolation." The younger, healthy population would then be able to return to a more normal life. But the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions will need to continue living with restrictions. We have to expect that these measures will be necessary for much longer for them.

A meeting of the German cabinet on March 18: "We want to inform people in a very clear and transparent manner."

A meeting of the German cabinet on March 18: "We want to inform people in a very clear and transparent manner."

Foto: MICHAEL KAPPELER / AFP

DER SPIEGEL: How long can these kinds of restrictions be kept up? Are you concerned that the number of incidents of domestic violence could rise?

Braun: When people’s freedom of movement is limited, it is a psychological burden. That can also have consequences. It is extremely valuable when a nuclear family are able to step outside together, as long as they keep their distance from others. That's another reason we didn't immediately implement all of the measures under consideration.

DER SPIEGEL: What freedoms do you miss, personally?

Braun: Weekend activities with friends and acquaintances. In-person encounters can’t be replaced by phone conversations.

DER SPIEGEL: Germany has implemented inspections at some of its borders. Do we still need them if the EU's external borders are closed?

Braun: If I tell Germans they cannot take any vacations inside the country, and that they should refrain from leisure activities, then I also need to ensure that people aren't able to come in from outside and do precisely those things.

DER SPIEGEL: The government wants to mitigate the impending economic crisis through so-called short-time work, in which employers cut their employees’ working hours while the government pays for a portion of the salary shortfall and for the social-insurance contributions usually paid for by the employer. It has provided fiscal liquidity support, by offering grants and loans to businesses, and ample credit. Doesn’t the state need to act more aggressively, for example by nationalizing companies?

Braun: At the moment, we are not ruling out any instrument. We, of course, see that the airline industry is experiencing considerable losses. With the liquidity support and the short-time work funds, we have already implemented two central measures. We are currently working on funds from which small companies, for whom the other forms of aid are not useful, can receive subsidies. But we also need to state clearly: In a crisis of this size, we can try to mitigate the broad effects. But the state cannot offset this crisis on its own.

DER SPIEGEL: What, concretely, do you expect from the business world?

DER SPIEGEL 13/2020
Foto: cgs

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 13/2020 (March 21, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

Braun: They need to ensure that the workforce stays on board. Landlords and employers that bear infrastructure costs need to jointly reflect on how to survive such a crisis - beyond government help. It’s important to understand that anyone who currently loses a renter will not find another. It might make sense to waive rent for a while. The goal is to overcome the dry spell and afterwards to carry on just as successfully as before.

DER SPIEGEL: How long will it take for the country to overcome this crisis?

Braun: The people who are affected didn’t slide into crisis because they have a bad product, or run a bad restaurant, or are bad artists. It happened because a pandemic is keeping us from carrying out certain activities. Once the situation is cleared up, people will be extremely enthusiastic about taking advantage of their regained freedoms. I can imagine the economy will start up again very, very quickly at the end of such a crisis, but there’s no way of knowing when that will be.

DER SPIEGEL: People were initially saying that warmer temperatures might lower the number of infections. But the situation in Brazil shows that this might not be the case.

Braun: It’s very likely that there will not be a summer break from this epidemic. That presents a big challenge for our preparatory measures. We will only get the all clear when there is a vaccine or a suitable treatment.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Braun, we thank you for this interview.

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