In her final public appearance before the Easter holidays, Chancellor Angela Merkel stated very clearly which scientific advice she intends to consider in steering further action in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. "For me, a very important study will be that of the National Academy of Sciences, the Leopoldina,” Merkel said at a press conference on Thursday. The chancellor said it was important to be "on firm ground” in making the upcoming decisions. Merkel said this is the only way that the many drastic restrictions on public life can be lifted again.
The report is now complete, and it appears that the Halle-based research institute has lived up to expectations. In their 19-page ad hoc statement, the scientists and experts considered the medical, economic, constitutional and psychological factors and provided precise recommendations for the next actions to be taken by the German government. "Criteria and strategies” need to be developed "for a gradual return to normality beyond the acute restrictions that have been imposed on basic rights such as the freedom of movement,” the researchers at the Leopoldina National Academy of Sciences write in their position paper, which was provided to DER SPIEGEL in advance of its release.
The 26 scholars spent hours over the Easter holidays discussing the current status in Germany before coming to an agreement on the recommendations they submitted to the German government. Highly regarded scientists including the Lars Feld, the chair of the German Council of Economic Experts, which advises the government on economic issues, ethicist Claudia Wiesemann, legal philosopher Reinhard Merkel and sociologist Armin Nassehi, among others, agreed on the language via conference calls and came up with clear standards for lifting the restrictions currently imposed in Germany.
"We wanted to adopt a calm and balanced approach in the heated political debate, and we wanted to give people an optimistic outlook,” Leopoldina President Gerald Haug told DER SPIEGEL. The overriding priority is "the protection of every single person” from getting infected with the coronavirus. "We have to avoid a second wave of infection at all costs,” he said. "The basic rule must be that we continue to observe the (social) distancing and hygiene measures that we have learned.” The loosening of the lockdown, he said, would be based on the following principles: That people will need to keep a distance of 2 meters (about 6.5 feet) from each other or wear a protective mask when that isn’t possible.
"Optimal health and the rapid resumption of a social life that has largely been put to a stop are not fundamentally incompatible with each other, but they are mutually dependent on each other,” the scholars write. They also argue that the drastic measures taken by the German government and the federal states during the hectic early phase of the pandemic were justified, even in light of a dearth of scientific data.
But those measures now need to be dramatically overhauled, they write. The scholars are also calling for research to be conducted into the "infection immunity status of the population” through appropriate random tests to determine how many people have already been infected by the disease and how many have already recovered. They argue that it should be possible to monitor the epidemic in real time and make forecasts that can predict what will happen in a week or two. That would make it possible to assess whether the number of infections remains under control or whether adjustments would need to be made if the ban on social contact is loosened. The scholars also expressed subtle criticism of shortcomings in the collection of important data and the fact that some of it hasn’t been made available digitally at a national level.
To help with those efforts, the Leopoldina researchers say they support the use of smartphone apps to assist in the tracking of infections. In a program similar to efforts in South Korea, where containment of the disease has been very successful, people would "voluntarily provide their GPS data as part of contact tracing efforts,” meaning the app would communicate with other smartphones using Bluetooth technology. This would make it easier to trace people who have come into contact with a newly infected person. Those individuals could then be placed in quarantine.
Leopoldina President Haug said he’s aware of the legal issues, particularly in regard to the storage of GPS data. "That’s why use of the apps has to be voluntary and the data must be deleted after four weeks,” he told DER SPIEGEL. He argued that awareness needs to be raised about the logic and usefulness of the app and that this is the only way of generating acceptance and motivation for using it. "This app is crucial to ensuring a detailed forecast of the course of the pandemic,” said Haug, who is also a director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz.
Software companies are currently developing the app for the German government. Once that app is in place, the academy recommends a return to normality "as soon as possible.” The ad hoc statement from the academy focuses on three areas: education, public life and future economic policy.
Daycare, Schools and Universities
The researchers at Leopoldina are pressing strongly for schools to be reopened "as soon as possible,” because forcing children to learn at home further exacerbates pre-existing social inequality in education. Since this applies foremost to the primary school level, where curricula are generally taught in a classroom environment, the experts argue that those schools should reopen first, starting with the upper classes in which pupils are preparing to make the transition to secondary school. But they recommend that students be required to wear masks, and that they should initially be given instruction in the basic subjects of German and mathematics in a "group size of a maximum of 15 pupils.” They propose that recess for students should also be alternated between subjects, so that the pupils have separate times.
In secondary schools, they recommend that foreign languages be taught in addition to German and mathematics, and that here, too, resumption of classes should start with those students preparing to graduate or move to higher levels of education. For students in their final years in high school, however, the scientists propose that a greater emphasis be placed on "self-organized learning using digital media.” General, however, they noted that it is important "to maintain opportunities for examinations at all stages of education,” meaning written and oral tests, including the Abitur high school graduation examinations that are required for entry to university, which they said should not be neglected due to the pandemic.
However, the academy has recommended keeping daycare centers and kindergartens closed "until the summer holidays” for all children except for those of key workers. The reason provided is that young children are unable to use protective masks, and the danger of the virus spreading to parents and grandparents is too great. At universities, the academy recommends that the summer semester should be completed "largely as an online/home-learning semester.”
The scientists also provide the German government with a clear mandate for pursuing policies for lifting the lockdown on public life, if only for "constitutional reasons.” If the number of new infections remains stable and at a low level, both corona and normal patients could be cared for in hospitals, they argue, and if people adhered to hygiene measures, then there would be nothing to stand in the way of a normalization of public life. Stores and restaurants could reopen as well as general businesses and municipal and government offices.
But for this, too, they recommend a mask requirement. "Every person should carry one with them in the future and wear it whenever they are unable to maintain the minimum distancing,” Haug said. That would apply at the supermarket, where people come into close contact, at public offices and also in places of work. The academy also recommends that people continue working from home in all instances where this is possible. If working from home isn’t possible and work needs to be done in shifts, the academy has recommended that those shifts always be scheduled with the same personnel and that greater space be created between workspaces to ensure correct social distancing. It also recommends that those same working groups would need to sit together in workplace cafeterias and that the groups should not mix.
Travel, both business and private, could also be resumed under those circumstances. The scientists recommend that the greatest possible distance needs to be created between people on trains, planes and buses and that masks should be worn covering the mouth and nose. In the case of German national railway Deutsche Bahn, Haug suggests that the company could establish a reservation system that ensures that a certain number of rows of seats between passengers are kept free. The resumption of recreational events such as concerts and sporting events would depend on the degree to which social distancing would be possible.
Other than a few instances, the Leopoldina researchers didn’t provide much more in terms of specific information, but they did offer a few criteria: It’s more likely, for example, that theaters will be able to reopen before there are any rock concerts. The same applies to football matches played in places with dense standing areas. The Leopoldina guidelines could stipulate that public attendance at those matches could only be allowed again once a vaccine for the coronavirus has been developed.
Economic Policy for Overcoming the Corona Crisis
The National Academy is calling for a number of tax-relief measures aimed at stimulating the economy in the short term, including write-offs for companies and the elimination of the solidarity tax paid by all Germans to help compensate for imbalances between the western German states and those of the former East Germany earlier than previously planned for lower- and middle-income groups. The elimination of that tax had originally been planned for only 90 percent of the populace, but the researchers are now proposing that it also be eliminated for top earners. It’s a proposal that is likely to upset Chancellor Merkel’s government coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats. German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, a member of the SPD, has rejected the demand for the elimination of the solidarity tax by Merkel’s conservatives from the very beginning.
The academy also urgently warned against neglecting environmental and climate protection in the face of the corona crisis. Instead, it advises the opposite: The economy should be put back on track to growth, but guided by "principles of sustainability, not least because they offer enormous potential for economic development,” the scientists write. "We need to stick with the course we have set, and that includes continuing to pursue the ‘Green Deal’ that the European Commission is promoting,” said paleoclimatologist Haug. As such, the scholars are clearly rejecting voices from the business community and the Christian Democrats and other conservative quarters calling for a reduction or postponement of environmental burdens on industry until after we have recovered from the corona crisis.
The scientists did remain conservative in their assessment of at least one aspect: the issue of financial aid among the European Union member states. The academy argued that countries that have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19 should be provided with loans and assistance from the European Investment Bank as well as the European Stability Mechanism at favorable terms. But they make no mention at all of the corona bonds that Italy, Spain and France are demanding to demonstrate European solidarity.
In their very broad opinion, the researchers warn against underestimating the consequences of social distancing on people's mental and physical health. These are immense, they warn. To that end, they recommend providing people with a solid vision for the way out of the corona crisis. This, they argue, could help reduce the psychological strain on people, while at the same time increasing the willingness to continue adhering to rules on hygiene and social distancing. This is the point where the scientists offered their most direct criticism of the political response to the crisis so far.
Chancellor Merkel is expected to give the National Academy’s paper a very careful read before she enters into the decisive negotiations about ending the national shutdown sparked by the coronavirus. On Tuesday afternoon, Merkel’s special corona cabinet is scheduled to meet in the Chancellery, with all the relevant government ministers attending, including Economics Minister Peter Altmaier, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and Health Minister Jens Spahn. One day later, Merkel is to meet with Germany’s state governors.
She will then announce the first steps toward a loosening of measures. But with this weekend’s ad hoc statements, politicians now have a scientifically based model with which they can justify the risky decisions they are going to have to make.
However, the actual time frame for the loosening of restrictions will likely hinge on an logistical factor that is more than a little tricky: The German government is going to have to procure protective masks - billions of them.