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At the beginning of December, the Government of the Republic of Slovenia adopted a plan for the lifting or tightening of the measures. This plan was then amended in light of the developments in early January, and the plan is widely known, as it has also been presented several times. All of the measures that the government is adopting are thus predictable. The markers for the lifting of measures in individual statistical regions were also publicly presented, published, and new data is also being introduced, so practically nothing regarding the situation in the regions is unclear, Prime Minister Janez Janša emphasised at Friday’s press conference.

“Several dilemmas have been discussed in public, regarding the general conditions at the national level, which need to be met in order to move ahead with the lifting of measures at the regional level. Recently, a concern has arisen regarding the Carinthia region, which, after having a large number of infections at the beginning of the second wave, is now doing significantly better than the Slovenian or national average, thank God, and it has already reached the conditions to move to the orange phase, but the entire country first has to meet the conditions for easing of the measures for us to move to the orange phase,” the Prime Minister Janez Janša pointed out and said that all those who are wondering what measures will be taken in the future, should monitor the data and the infographics on the government websites, and with little effort, they will be able to determine which of the measures will be implemented in which region in advance, based on the trends.

According to Janša, the general epidemiological situation in the country is still not good. “We would be very happy if the entire country was like Carinthia at the moment, in terms of infections, or if it were even better. For this reason, the government must always take into account the trends when deciding on the release or tightening of the measures, in addition to the static image on the cut-off day of the week, which is always Tuesday. There were a lot of questions, especially concerning the decision to open schools, in terms of, if there are only a few infections more or less than the agreed-upon limit, why is no tolerance criterion being applied.” According to Janša, this criterion can be used in cases where the general trends are positive and are moving in the direction of the number of infections lowering, both at the national level and in individual regions. In the event that such trends are not good, if we are witnessing a deterioration, so an increase in the number of infections or a stagnation, then, of course, it does not make sense to take into account any high deviation from the agreed-upon number. “In this case, we will soon be in chaos, and this is the last thing we all want,” Janša emphasised.

The Prime Minister further explained that starting next week, care for the children from the first three grades of primary schools, in addition to distance learning, will be organised for the regions that are still black and where the children cannot attend lessons in schools. This exception thus applies to all cases where both parents, or in the case of a single-parent family, the one parent, work in critical infrastructure, in education, in the police or in the Slovenian Army. “These activities are critical, and they must continue to run smoothly even during an epidemic, and so in cases where the families cannot secure childcare or help for distance learning, this has been made available by the country, including in the regions where the pupils of the first three grades, as well as the kindergarteners, are still staying at home.”

On Monday, classes for the first three grades will also be held, in addition to the testing for the teachers
There were also some dilemmas regarding Monday, as it is a day for compulsory testing for all those who will be teaching children in classrooms. “When the government discussed the situation on Wednesday, it did not have all the elements to make the final decision yet, on whether or not it is possible to both hold classes and test the teachers on Monday.” Janša emphasised that the association of principals, which conducted a survey in the red regions, helped solve the dilemma. More than 80 percent of the schools in the survey responded positively, so they said that they believe they are able to both conduct the lessons and re-test the employees and teachers on the same day. Based on this, the ordinance will be amended today, so that the first triade will also have classes on Mondays, in addition to the teachers getting tested. Janša said that they had already appealed to all test providers to find the most appropriate way to conduct testing and also make the lessons possible, in cooperation with the principals and local communities or mayors. “We are aware that this will probably not be possible everywhere, and it will be necessary to conduct distance learning in certain schools on Monday. However, we reckon that in the vast majority of schools, this will be possible. Where it can be arranged for testing to take place the day before, for example, on Sunday, the test from Sunday will also be considered good enough. In this way, most of the schools still gain one day with the children of the first three grades in schools.”

We are expecting the vaccination coverage in Slovenia to be high enough by summer
Regarding questions about vaccination coverage and vaccines, Janša pointed out that a little more than 76 thousand doses of vaccine have been delivered to Slovenia so far. The vast majority of them have already been used. The doses from the last delivery were mainly used for the second dose of the vaccine for the most vulnerable groups. Of the vaccines that have already been approved (mainly BioNtech-Pfizer and Moderna), we finally have the forecast for the next month – over 110 thousand doses of the vaccine will be delivered by the end of February, Janša said. In February, BioNtech-Pfizer in particular will increase the number of doses delivered every week, which is good news, compared to some of the other, worse information we have received in recent weeks. Moderna also ensures a reliable supply of all of the quantities.

Janša stated that the February delivery from AstraZeneca is the problem. “This is the amount of around 80 thousand doses for Slovenia, which we might not get, partially also because the European Health Agency is deciding on the approval of this vaccine today. The approval itself will not yet provide the definitive guarantee for these deliveries, so when it comes to our delivery plan for February, we are 100 percent counting on the supplies from those manufacturers whose vaccines have already been approved and with which the people are already being vaccinated.” According to Janša, anything we might get from AstraZeneca, will be an added bonus. The Prime Minister also said that good news is coming in from the Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which are in the final stages of testing, and it is possible that sometime in the coming weeks, the European Health Agency will also receive a formal request for assessment and approval. The European Commission has ordered several hundred million doses of this vaccine, and once approved, this will significantly improve the quantities in our vaccination plan. “In Slovenia, we are still expecting to achieve a high enough vaccination coverage by summer,” he emphasised. This is likely to happen even if only the two companies which have the already approved vaccines would deliver the promised quantities. In the first half of the year, the highest share of the vaccines ordered by Slovenia were Pfizer’s.

“Since most of these forecasts of deliveries of the already guaranteed vaccine supplies are concentrated in the second quarter, so in the months from March onwards, this means that we cannot realistically expect that vaccination in the first quarter will have a significant impact on stopping the epidemic.” According to Janša, this is exactly why it is necessary to carefully follow all of the preventive measures during this time and try to limit our contacts to a minimum. Janša pointed out that we already have the UK coronavirus strain in Slovenia, which is more contagious. The first infection with the strain was now confirmed to have happened in December. Judging by the information from other countries, strict measures are, therefore, all the more urgent. We should not expect any lifting of the measures or improvement in the EU in the coming weeks. Portugal is currently doing the worst. “Unfortunately, we cannot expect any major improvements in Europe in the coming weeks, but according to Janša, we can all contribute to the declining trend of infections and all other consequences in Slovenia, despite the presence of the English strain of the virus. We can help make sure that the capacity of our healthcare system will not be exceeded, which would force us to pay the price of the epidemic in terms of additional collateral damage.”

 Janša called for cooperation
Janša called for cooperation. Especially at the local level, as a lot can be done to ensure that the measures are being followed, as compliance can be monitored. Civil protection also has some powers in this regard. According to Janša, the regional release map will be adapted for the level of municipalities in the upcoming weeks. “The regime of lifting or tightening the measures will also depend, in part, on how the local communities will organise themselves, so that we will be able to survive this time when the measures are actually needed, without any additional tightening of the measures – so only by following the measures that are already in force, which should be strictly implemented and monitored.” In the end, Janša said, this will also be reflected on the faster or slower normalisation of public life in individual regions or municipalities.

Janša also called on the media to cooperate, namely, if all of the measures are received with a negative reaction, this will not help stop the epidemic. “We are all affected by the measures, in one way or another. At the same time, the truth is that if we all work together, the virus will spread more slowly and we will be able to stop it, and the measures will simply no longer be needed.” Given that we know that the coming weeks will be extremely difficult, that due to the English strain of the virus we can practically start talking about the third wave of the epidemic, which has begun all over Europe, as well as here, Janša pointed out the following: “The better we work together, the bigger our shared responsibility and awareness of this responsibility will be, the greater our patience, the sooner we will be able to shorten the time when the measures need to be adhered to,” Janša made it clear.

The Prime Minister also responded to what has been published in certain media outlets – the claims that the government supposedly blocked the consent for university studies yesterday. “That is not true. The government did not address this point yet. The Ministry of Education sent us the material a few days ago. These are strategic decisions, and it makes no sense to approach these decisions the same way as our predecessors have, which has resulted in thousands of young people without employment opportunities, both in Slovenia, as well as within the common European market. If we only write certain resolutions and sign commitments at the European level, stating that we will become more digital, green, advanced, innovative, it does not help us at all, if we do not make sure people who would fit these profiles actually enrol in the appropriate schools,” the Prime Minister said and continued that changing the enrolment numbers for higher and university education is one of the basic strategic development documents in the country. “We do not know yet whether the proposal that the Ministry of Education has sent us is good or bad, we do not know, nor were we able to hold a discussion on this topic in the competent government committee yet, and we are not talking about assessments and decisions, we are talking about whether or not a responsible approach is needed. I instructed the Minister to investigate why the delay occurred, and we instructed the Ministry of Labour to present the needs of the Slovenian economy, public sector and the state, according to individual profiles by next week, and the government will take all of these elements into account.”

“The enrolment numbers at the public faculties are not a collection of wishes of those who run the faculties, this is a strategic development document of the country that should be taken seriously, and in all the mandates of the governments I have led, we did just that. In the 2004-2008 term, we corrected the imbalances, and the government will look at the current proposal next week and take it seriously.” However, for all of those who say that the deadline for publishing this document is the 1st of February, they should be asked why they did not propose this earlier. “In any case, this is one of the most important decisions of the government, in terms of the development strategy for the future, and the government will fulfil its responsibility, as it should,” Prime Minister Janša concluded.

The Prime Minister also answered the journalists’ questions
Regarding the vaccination plans, the Prime Minister said that the actual vaccination plan always includes only the vaccines that have already been approved and have been proven to cause no complications, in this case, these are the BioNtech Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. “All of the instructions that we pass on are also coming from the number of purchases made,” the Prime Minister said. He also said that the amount of delivered AstraZeneca vaccines is much lower than predicted, “and even if we do not consider the amount, we still do not know whether or not the vaccine will arrive, so we are also not 100 percent counting on it,” the Prime Minister said. He also added that offers have been made for the option of purchasing this vaccine separate from the European order. “Something that we do not like is going on, and the European Commission has pointed this out. The administrative measures are being prepared, as this company has its factories on the European soil, so at least this part of the complication will be solved,” the Prime Minister added. He also said he believes that we are more likely to be able to count on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for the first half of the year. “Initiatives have also been launched that will increase the supply from the other manufacturers if the complications with AstraZeneca continue, but as said, Slovenia is still counting on 110 thousand doses in February, from both manufacturers who are already delivering the vaccine to us, and anything above that number will be additionally included in our programme,” the Prime Minister added.

The Prime Minister said that as far as the measures are concerned, everything is described in the release plan, and the government plans to stick to it. “In the last week, the trends in the number of infections were not good; the trends in hospital capacity were better. There is minimal room for manoeuvre, but the government will look at the trends on Wednesday and decide if the plan should be changed in any way. What is new, though, is that when we adopted the plan, we did not yet know that the English strain of the coronavirus is already present in Slovenia, so this fact can change the situation and can cause the release plan to change, but this is not yet expected to happen in the upcoming days,” he emphasised.

The DeSUS MPs have until Wednesday of next week to decide
Janša also answered questions related to choosing the new Minister of Health. “I do not know where the speculations about the temporary transfer of this position came from, because this has never been a possibility,” the Prime Minister said. “It is true that when the Minister from the DeSUS party, Tomaž Gantar resigned, in the middle of the worst wave of the epidemic, the coalition consulted on who would temporarily perform this function and whether it makes sense to nominate a new candidate immediately. Matej Tonin was mentioned as a serious option; however, we all decided that it makes the most sense for me to temporarily take over the role myself and to propose a minister for this position, as soon as the situation that arose after the decision of the Council of the DeSUS party to leave the coalition, is resolved.  The balance of power and support for the government is not decided on by the bodies of individual parties, but by the members of parliament, and the situation regarding the status or positions of the DeSUS parliamentary group and all their MPs is not yet clear, and that is the main reason why I have not proposed a new minister for health yet. We want to solve this problem one step at a time,” the Prime Minister said. “If the majority of the DeSUS parliamentary group no longer supports the government, then the Ministry of Agriculture is also a problem, as, according to the coalition agreement, this party or parliamentary group is also responsible for this ministry. The Minister and the DeSUS deputies must make a decision before Wednesday next week, whether they intend to continue working with the government, as part of the government, or whether they are the classic opposition, without a staff cut in the government. So, things will be clearer after next week, we will know whether I will send only one proposal for a new minister to the National Assembly, or I will send two,” the Prime Minister said.

As for the opening and closing of schools, the Prime Minister reiterated that the government is acting according to the plan, which clearly states when the schools can be opened again, when it is time for distance learning, and when the pupils can return to schools. “We have already said many times before that given the situation, it is to be expected that schools will be open for one week and then be run remotely the next. Unfortunately, this also applies to the future. I believe this is an additional complication, which requires additional effort and causes additional work for the principals, parents, the local communities, but hundreds of thousands of new contacts will be made in schools, and given the situation we are in, we see that we do not have much room to experiment,” said the Prime Minister. “When we discuss the situation every Wednesday, we do not just look at the numbers for a specific region that week; we also look at the trends. If the trends were different and were going in a different direction – if the number of infections was declining and we could count on a region that is coloured black to surely become red on Monday, and if we could know for sure that the situation would change throughout the country, the tolerance factor could be significantly higher. However, if we receive data that shows us that the number of infections has increased in the last three days, if we get data that shows that the English strain of the virus has been present in Slovenia since December, then this tolerance factor cannot go in the direction of releasing the measures, but rather in the direction of tightening them,” said the Prime Minister. “I urge you to prepare for that situation – the government is obliged to change its decisions every week, adjust them accordingly, and I want to reiterate that there are no big secrets, as we have a release plan, we are publishing data by regions, and if you look at the data and compare the numbers, you can see for yourself what the trends are like, and you can also know what will follow next week, so there is no need to wait for a government meeting,” he added.

As for benefits for sick leave due to the coronavirus, the Prime Minister said that in most other countries, the situation with benefits is much less generous than in Slovenia. “However, we have received the information that in individual companies, the employees are forcing those who had symptoms to still come to work, and the health inspection has checked up on this, but so far, there has been no confirmation of this,” the Prime Minister Janša said. He also added that based on the latest survey data on where people get infected, most people have said that they do not know or do not want to tell, which is by far the most popular answer. “Given the situation, the measures in force and the way the economy works, the workplace is one of the riskier places where the infections are spreading, and therefore, the health and labour inspectorate will increase control in the coming weeks,” he said. “I am calling on all those responsible, to make sure that the work process is being carried out in accordance with the recommendations of the National Institute of Public Health and in accordance with the rules of occupational medicine,” said the Prime Minister. He also thanked the employers who organised rapid testing, those who are monitoring the situation carefully and react quickly when individual infections pop up and are not just leaving this solely in the hands of their employees. “We are all aware of the damage that is being caused by the epidemic, the damage is distributed differently in different categories of the population, and all of the damage is regrettable, but there is damage that can be repaired, and damage that cannot be repaired,” the Prime Minister stated when asked how much harm the epidemic is causing children. “If someone gets very ill and has to suffer the consequences of his illness for a long time, or even for a lifetime; if someone dies, this is damage that cannot be repaired,” the Prime Minister said.

If the measures were not working, our numbers would have been significantly higher
“The measures we have are working. If they were not working, we would have much higher numbers,” he answered the question if the government needs to change its strategy. “It is also not true that we are all adhering to the measures, because if we did, the numbers would have been significantly lower. The virus does not spread on its own; it is being spread by humans. If we all adhered to the basic hygiene measures and would not socialise or would keep to our own bubbles and would follow the rules in situations where we are forced to be together, then there would be no more virus. However, because this is not happening, because five percent of the people still do not give a damn about the measures, the situation is what it is,” the Prime Minister said, adding that there is no alternative to the strategy itself. “Even Sweden, which has launched the alternative strategy of reaching herd immunity, has given up on this,” he added. “The only way is to be aware of the seriousness of the situation and be patient. We are not going round in circles. Before we had the vaccine, it would make sense to expect that we would be moving from one wave to the next, but I believe that it is possible that the third wave will be our last, now that we have the vaccine and can stop the spread of the virus with the vaccinations – I believe this will be done by summer,” the Prime Minister added and said that everything in their power is being done to vaccinate as many people as possible, with the most vulnerable groups being the priority, as the damage could be the greatest there. No vaccine doses are waiting, everything is being used immediately, in order to reach our goal as soon as possible. “We are encouraging other countries to do the same.”

Regarding the English strain of the coronavirus and how widespread this strain has become in our country, the Prime Minister said that we do not have definite data, but we can make conclusions about the spread of the virus, based on how it spread in the other countries. “The reorganisation for better detection of this virus is underway, so that with all the laboratories we have, we will be able to monitor this more closely. However, according to consultations with colleagues from the other European countries, there is no particular plan of action against this strain only, there is no plan that would target only the English strain of the virus, other than implementing stricter measures if the situation gets worse. It is true that other mutations of the virus are also circulating, and I expect that the experts will use all the capacities available to ensure that we are not as late in discovering the other strains, as we were in discovering that we already have the English strain in Slovenia.”

Sara Kovač

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