Heiner Birnstiel is angry. For weeks he tried everything to get a vaccination appointment for his 95-year-old mother-in-law. She lives in a supervised residential complex in Nordstemmen south of Hanover. Birnstiel has tried several times to reach the vaccination hotline in vain. “I choose in the morning. I choose at noon. I choose in the afternoon. And I can’t get through,” he says in an interview with Panorama 3.
At the beginning of February, Heiner Birnstiel put his mother-in-law on the waiting list via the online portal. But it wasn’t until mid-March that he received an email with the long-awaited vaccination date. On March 31 the 95-year-old should finally get her first corona vaccination. “It was a catastrophe for us,” says Birnstiel.
Complaints about appointments
A private company, Majorel Wilhelmshaven GmbH, is responsible for making appointments in Lower Saxony. Among other things, she was commissioned by the state to coordinate the appointments with a total of 50 vaccination centers.
But in the past few weeks there have been more complaints about appointments being made in Lower Saxony. Bernd Beutel can also report some problems. He is a senior advisory council in the East Frisian community of Rhauderfehn and helps others register for vaccinations. There were also breakdowns – for example with three women from his region. They received the letter inviting them to be vaccinated on March 4th. Unfortunately, the appointment was the day before. And the letters were only sent on March 3rd, as the postmark shows.
Telephone chaos with announcement
Many also complained that they could not get through the hotline, says Beutel. The state government had even announced in advance that the capacities would not be sufficient. The hotline will initially not be able to cope with the onslaught, said the head of the crisis team in January. When Lower Saxony on January 28th released registrations for the over 80s, the phone system actually collapsed. The system recorded 700,000 call attempts in the first hour alone. In the following days, several million call attempts failed.
According to its own information, the Majorel company had 150 employees on the hotline at the time, as agreed with the state. This could have handled up to 20,000 calls a day. However, there are more than 450,000 people in Lower Saxony who are at least 80 years old and do not live in a retirement home – so they have to make an appointment themselves.
What are other federal states doing better?
Research by NDR and “Süddeutscher Zeitung” shows that other countries have started larger call centers – for example Baden-Württemberg. The country also had an offer from Majorel for the vaccination hotline in November. According to the Ministry of Social Affairs in Stuttgart, the company offered to operate the call center for Baden-Württemberg with 100 full-time employees – for eleven million residents. “It was clear to us that that was not enough,” explains a spokesman for the Ministry of Social Affairs. The country chose another provider that could provide five times as many employees.
And in Saarland, people over 80 were able to register for the vaccination a month earlier than in Lower Saxony. Here, too, they had initial problems, but at the beginning of January the number of employees for the hotline was increased to 120 – almost as many were deployed as in Lower Saxony with its eight times as many residents three weeks later.
And the country is lagging behind when it comes to vaccination rates. In some countries such as Saarland, Thuringia or Bremen, around 15 doses have already been administered per 100 inhabitants, in Lower Saxony it is currently 12.8. It is thus below the national average.
Janssen-Kucz: “More than bumpy”
The appointment management is “more than bumpy”, criticizes Meta Janssen-Kucz. She sits for the Greens in the Lower Saxony state parliament. And even the CDU, coalition partner of the SPD in Lower Saxony, is apparently dissatisfied with the choice of service provider. At a meeting of the Social Committee at the beginning of March, a member of the Union asked whether the service provider could still be changed. The SPD-led Ministry of Social Affairs refused.
However, it is still unclear to the MPs by which criteria the company was selected. “We never found out who, how or which companies should be commissioned in which procedures,” says Janssen-Kucz. She asked about it several times, but never got an answer from the government. It is therefore unclear according to which criteria the service provider was selected and how the award went.
At the request of the NDR, the Lower Saxony Ministry of Social Affairs announced that they had “found an experienced Lower Saxony service provider” in Majorel. The company applied on its own initiative and prevailed in the subsequent selection process. Other companies were not considered for the entire service package. “There were no serious offers from other companies at the end of November,” said the ministry.
According to research by NDR and SZ, other companies have also submitted offers, such as the ticket dealer Eventim CTS, which has taken over the scheduling in Schleswig-Holstein. A company spokesman said it offered its system to all states in November. The company Doctolib, which organizes the appointments for Berlin and all of France, said that it had submitted an offer to all countries.
Why did you choose Majorel?
The election of Majorel was officially announced in the Landtag’s Social Committee in mid-December. “This is a very professional service provider,” said committee chairman Holger Ansmann (SPD). He knows the company very well. Because he was managing director of the Technologie-Centrum Nordwest (TCN) in the small town of Schortens in Friesland for more than 25 years until October 2020. This is exactly where Majorel Wilhelmshaven GmbH is based in the technology center. The company is one of the largest employers in the structurally weak region. Majorel is a “good choice”, Ansmann told the Wilhelmshavener Zeitung. “An order from the state of Lower Saxony for work in Lower Saxony – that is a good thing.”
According to research by NDR and SZ, it was also Ansmann who brought the company and the Ministry of Social Affairs together. “I pointed out the general range of services from Majorel to the state government and made contact for an initial discussion,” Ansmann confirmed on request. He took part in this first, around 30-minute conversation, but after that he was no longer involved in the negotiations, says Ansmann. The ministry and majorel also confirm this. The first “short interview” took place on November 11th. “There was no further involvement of MdL Ansmann beyond mere contact initiation in the content of the interview and in the contract negotiations,” writes the Ministry of Social Affairs. The contract was signed on December 14th.
Some are still waiting for an appointment
When asked whether the location and the workplaces also played a role in the decision, the Ministry of Social Affairs denies. The fact that it was a Lower Saxony company was “gratifying”, but not decisive. Regarding the problems with the hotline and the scheduling of appointments, it said that these were “problems of the past”. Overall, the vaccination campaign is now “stable”. “We are in constant contact with our service provider so that the processes and procedures relating to the allocation of appointments continue to run smoothly,” said the ministry. “If there are isolated problems, they are usually of a technical nature and can be resolved quickly.” According to Majorel, the number of hotline employees has now also increased to more than 700.
Nevertheless, some of the people who would actually have had their turn are still waiting for an appointment, such as Torben Fedder. He is a physiotherapist in Hanover and, according to the vaccination ordinance, is actually in the first priority group because he makes house calls to particularly vulnerable patients. But for weeks he couldn’t find a way to register for a vaccination. He was initially unable to register online because he is not over 80 years old. He was also turned away from the hotline. Even with the health department he got stuck. “I’ve tried everything, no chance,” says Fedder. It was not until mid-March, when the registrations for the second priority group were activated, that he could be put on the waiting list. He doesn’t know when his turn will come.