The refugee crisis from 2015, the coronavirus pandemic, now the effects of the energy crisis: As a senator for social affairs, health and work, Melanie Leonhard has been in office as a crisis manager for seven years now. The latest coronavirus containment regulation, which will come into force this weekend and is intended to guide Hamburg through autumn and winter, has just been drawn up in her office in Mundsburg. But the pandemic is no longer the social democrat’s biggest problem.
WELT AM SONNTAG: US President Joe Biden and European governments have declared the pandemic over, Federal Minister of Health Karl Lauterbach (SPD) is still warning and warning with hints of alarmism. Where do you place yourself?
Melanie Leonhard: In the middle with a slight bias towards Biden. We practiced life with the virus, accompanied by only very few restrictions, in the summer as a society. Now the corona numbers will rise again in autumn, that is to be expected. Now we have to show that this is also possible in this situation. However, I am currently not receiving any signals that would worry me.
WELT AM SONNTAG: Since the beginning of the Corona period, the parameters for assessing the situation have shifted again and again. What will be the most important indicator for you to adjust measures afterwards?
Leonhard: On the one hand, we have to monitor the disease burden of the predominant type of virus. There are currently infections, but few serious illnesses. If that changes, we'll have to see what to do next. Secondly, this also corresponds to the strain on the healthcare system. The situation there is manageable at the moment.
WELT AM SONNTAG: The Senate has now passed a containment ordinance that will come into force this weekend and should be valid until April. Didn't you want to constantly re-vote?
Leonhard: So far, the law has obliged us to make new decisions every four weeks. Now this provision has changed, and we also want to send people the signal of long-term reliability and plannability: You can adapt to these regulations for the coming months. But if Corona becomes a burden again in a stronger form, we have to become active again, then the obligation to wear a mask indoors at major events could become an issue again. At the moment there is no reason for that.
WELT AM SONNTAG: Lauterbach again: He often argues with numbers of corona deaths that we should not accept. The UKE head of intensive care, Stefan Kluge, counters that there have been hardly any deaths from the virus since Omicron. How do you see the debate?
Leonhard: We all still remember the situations of the past two winters, when there were very high death rates and seriously ill people from southern Germany were brought to Hamburg because the clinics there were overcrowded. But now we have a very high vaccination rate in the population, a lot of people who have recovered, the virus has changed. At the moment I would not argue with the concern of many corona deaths, which does not mean that particularly vulnerable groups, such as people with certain previous illnesses, do not need to be protected.
WELT AM SONNTAG: There are still specifications in the new regulation, such as the obligation to wear a mask. Anyone who takes the train from Copenhagen to Hamburg will experience when crossing the border that travelers will then put on their masks after two and a half hours of driving without a mask. Funny or absurd?
Leonhard: There are such situations, of course. But Germany remains a large country with a lot of transit traffic, and the risk of infection is particularly high on buses and trains. For me, this measure still makes sense in our situation, even if other countries no longer do it.
WELT AM SONNTAG: In a letter to the federal government, four of your country colleagues in the health ministries – in Baden-Württemberg, Hesse, Bavaria and Schleswig-Holstein – are demanding that the obligation to isolate infected people be lifted or restricted to a few professions. Why didn't you sign it?
Leonhard: That was discussed extensively among the countries. In my opinion, such changes should not be based on political calculations, but on what makes professional sense. That is why we have agreed that we will first obtain an expert opinion and talk to the Robert Koch Institute about it. Last autumn and winter we saw what damage too early and uncoordinated advances from Bavaria can do. The conversation with the RKI is pending, and if the infection experts say that the isolation obligation can be relaxed, then we will do it. We don't want to isolate people, we want to slow down the infection process.
WELT AM SONNTAG: The vaccination requirement for employees in the healthcare sector and in care facilities has also remained, here the booster status must be proven. Do you still think that makes sense, although the question of the risk of infection can be separated from this vaccination status? Nursing associations called on you to stop the query, saying it was "completely out of date".
Leonhard: The law applies, and it's just a matter of providing one-time proof of vaccination status. Most of the employees in the facilities are vaccinated. In the knowledge of the high death rates in winter 20020/2021 in the nursing stations - triggered by the corona virus - we should make sure again that the highest possible protection is guaranteed here. Incidentally, staff absences due to infections are significantly lower if the employees are vaccinated. So it is also in the interest of the operators to keep track of this.
WELT AM SONNTAG: There are many areas in your authority that also suffer from completely different framework conditions. Many clinics say that they will not be able to cope with the millions in additional costs due to the increased energy prices. The same applies to care and senior citizens' facilities, where the heating cannot simply be turned down. How can you help?
Leonhard: The concerns are justified, two years of Corona have already left deep marks on hospital financing. With the energy problem, however, there are sums in the room that the municipal budgets will never be able to cope with. Here, the federal government must present a concept to cushion these costs precisely, namely through the benefit law. In nursing we are talking about an almost completely privatized area, so direct payments cannot be used to intervene. And you can't burden those in need of care and their relatives any further.
WELT AM SONNTAG: And finally, as Senator for Social Affairs, you are also responsible for social balance. The food banks are overflowing, many people live with great anxiety about the coming months. How do you feel about this situation?
Leonhard: This is a situation that is very, very difficult - also because there is no end in sight. Politically, there was a reaction in various areas with service extensions - for example in the standard rates, child and housing benefits. But in the long run we will not be able to counter-finance the upheavals on the electricity and gas markets with social benefits, otherwise an aging society would quickly be overwhelmed.
This is not a crystal ball, but a rule of three. For this reason, the electricity price must be decoupled from the gas price as a first step. The electricity price is high, although there is no shortage. In a second step, however, the gas price must also be considered: Can pricing, as it is currently taking place, be changed? Spain has taken steps here.
WELT AM SONNTAG: Those would be pragmatic steps, like now with the gas price cap. Recently, however, there have been many well-intentioned savings and behavioral suggestions from parts of politics, such as showering properly with washcloths.
Leonhard: You didn't hear it from me. Of course, it doesn't hurt to be informed about private savings opportunities. But if you have little money anyway, you know exactly where you can save. These people don't need our savings tips. People who already have very little or who are very afraid of falling into the middle class expect something different from politics. Namely, as just mentioned, the solution to the structural problems that have arisen or become visible as a result of the new situation.
WELT AM SONNTAG: You are also SPD state chairman. In Sweden and Italy there has been a shift to the right in elections. Will Germany face the same if politicians cannot offer any other solutions?
Leonhard: Italy is an important European partner, what happens there also concerns us. Now there are many different motives and backgrounds for such a choice. The best prevention that we in Germany can take against such tendencies is to set the right priorities in politics. Citizens must have confidence in the state's ability and willingness to act. It's not about everyone being satisfied with everything, that would be unthinkable in a democracy. We now need more decisions and fewer wimps in politics.
Vita: Melanie Leonhard was still largely unknown when she was appointed senator by the then mayor Olaf Scholz (SPD) - but that quickly changed significantly. Since then, the 45-year-old historian, who has a doctorate, has had to prove herself several times in crisis management. Since 2018, Leonhard has also been the country head of the SPD. The mother of a son lives with her family in Hamburg's rural district of Harburg and likes to post nature photos on Facebook.