Health ministers usually do not write reminders when they are not on duty. Jens Spahn did it and, with some distance, delivers his view of a pandemic policy that is still highly controversial today.
Jens Spahn is actually already dealing with the next crisis again, this time in the opposition. But apart from the debates about energy supply and inflation, he is now once again concerned with the big topic that pushed him to the political limits like no other – and still shapes his public image today: Corona.
Spahn, 42, ex-Federal Minister of Health from the CDU, has written a book about crisis management in the first two years of the pandemic, 2020 and 2021. It is a review in explanation and defense mode, but also a balance sheet with problems and some of your own mistakes.
“We will have to forgive each other a lot” is the name of the book that was published a year after the Union lost power in the federal elections. The title is based on a formulation that Spahn used in April 2020 in the Bundestag to promote understanding for difficult decisions in the “crisis of the century”. After leaving office with all the fighting and hostilities in December 2021, he switched to parliamentary group vice for economy and climate protection. The former minister deliberately no longer commented publicly on corona policy.
So now a review on around 300 pages. Spahn said at the book launch in Berlin that he was interested in lessons from this historical phase, such as more crisis prevention and European independence. A plea to be “relentless” instead of relentless in the face of increasingly heated controversies. And, for himself, also a capstone for the most intense and demanding time of his life.
The bottom line is that Spahn justifies the Corona course – not in every point, but all in all. “Yes, we got through this difficult time comparatively well,” he writes. “But not as good as it could have been – and sometimes had to be.”
As a “particular omission” he mentions “that we did not manage to protect children and young people from the consequences of this pandemic as we should have done”. In retrospect, he thinks that the general school closure in all 16 countries in March 2020 would not have been necessary, at least at that point in time. Overall, however, tough measures in this country were less drastic than elsewhere in Europe. Restrictions on freedom were a bitter medicine, “but also an effective one”.
In crisis management, he was in fact a “coordinating petitioner” with the states and municipalities due to fewer federal competencies, writes Spahn – but still has political responsibility. He gave many interviews and thought: “Explaining a lot helps a lot.” In such a crisis, however, every sentence has to be right, which nobody can do. It would therefore have been wiser to communicate in a “reduced” way.
His relationship with the chancellor at the time “intensified during the crisis,” reports Spahn. Even if Angela Merkel (CDU) and he did not always agree. “I was ‘team careful’ and she was ‘team very careful’.” He was critical of Merkel’s role when the coalition partner SPD went on an escalation course at the beginning of 2021 and put him under pressure with a catalog of questions about vaccinations. The maneuver worked, and at that time a cornerstone was laid for the subsequent electoral defeat of the Union.
The correct reaction would have been a unanimous rejection by the CDU and CSU with a “clear statement” from the Chancellor. But Merkel “of course” promised to answer the questions.
In the book, Spahn also touches on topics that caused a stir on the edge of the crisis. It was a mistake that he went to Leipzig in October 2020 – in times of everyday corona rules – to a dinner where donations were solicited for the CDU. “As a health minister in a situation like this, you have a role model function. I didn’t do that that evening.” In the book, Spahn rejects the “rumour” that the donations, at 9999 euros, were one euro below the reportable limit. “That was wrong, but I didn’t correct it.” He did not provide any information on the amount of the donations.
“Politically unwise, insensitive” was also the time for buying a house in Berlin in the summer of 2020, “which later hit the headlines as a ‘villa’ because of the comparatively high value of the property”. Despite everything, he does not regret the purchase.
Spahn writes about today’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) that the then Vice-Chancellor behaved “rather passively and wait-and-see” in a Prime Minister’s conference, as is often the case in this round. He worked well together with his successor as minister, Karl Lauterbach (SPD), for many years. “He and I, we respect each other.” After the role reversal, both agreed not to comment on each other’s work. That worked well – when it didn’t work, Lauterbach called the next day and apologized.
Spahn personally describes how, in the constant pressure situation and after many skirmishes on March 8, 2021, he reached a “low point” in the time of the crisis. “I was through. Quite simply through it.” That it was also a feeling of liberation to give up the ministerial post after two hard Corona years – no, he couldn’t say that. At first he felt sad. “I would have liked to have experienced it as Minister of Health: the end of the pandemic.”
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