Germany extends coronavirus curbs to Jan 10

Germany recorded another 17,270 new infections and 487 deaths over the last 24 hours. PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN (BLOOMBERG) - Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany will extend its partial lockdown by three more weeks into next year as the country struggles to regain control of the coronavirus spread.

Bars, gyms and cinemas will remain closed until Jan 10 and the government will reconvene with regional leaders on Jan 4 to reassess the restrictions, Mrs Merkel said late on Wednesday (Dec 2) after talks with the premiers of Germany's 16 states.

The country's infection rates are still far too high and need to come down faster, Mrs Merkel said in Berlin. "We have to bemoan a very high number of deaths every day, which shows the amount of responsibility that we have."

Germany had 23,275 new cases in the 24 hours through Thursday morning and total infections have more than doubled since the measures started, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

The latest daily death toll was 482, close to a record.

Mrs Merkel's administration last week already extended the partial shutdown until Dec 20 while keeping schools and much of the economy open. The so-called "lockdown light" has yielded little progress in slowing the spread to levels the government has determined as manageable.

Mrs Merkel on Wednesday reiterated that the seven-day incidence per 100,000 citizens needs to come down to around 50 - and stay there - before restrictions can be loosened. It was unchanged at 134 on Thursday, according to the latest data from Germany's RKI public health institute.

RKI president Lothar Wieler said that the infection numbers have leveled out but are not yet showing any palpable sign of declining. "Weary" health authorities are no longer able to track cases effectively and some hospitals are approaching the limit of their capacity, with operations and treatments delayed, he added.

"We are seeing more and more outbreaks in care homes," Mr Wieler said on Thursday at a news conference, urging citizens to respect hygiene and distancing rules and protect vulnerable groups. "These restrictions will be with us for a long time, until a sufficient section of the population has been vaccinated."

Curbs might be tightened further in January if the number of new cases doesn't come down fast enough, according to Bavarian State Premier Markus Soeder.

"We should not shy away from acting much more consequently," said the conservative politician, who is seen as a candidate to succeed Mrs Merkel as chancellor next year.

Mrs Merkel has said before that the country will likely prolong its partial shutdown into January unless there's an unexpectedly rapid decline in contagion rates. By contrast, France and Britain, which imposed tougher restrictions, are now cautiously moving to loosen curbs ahead of the Christmas holidays.

The lack of progress in stemming the spread is increasing tension over how to protect the economy. Mrs Merkel said the government can't continue to reimburse affected businesses for 75 per cent of lost sales next year.

Eckhardt Rehberg, budget spokesman for Mrs Merkel's parliamentary caucus, said the chancellor is right to turn the focus away from compensating businesses for lost sales and back to so-called bridge aid. Under the programme, which has been extended until the end of June, companies can apply for assistance with fixed costs such as heating and rent.

Spending 15 billion euros (S$24.3 billion) a month on sales compensation "cannot be justified either to other sectors of the economy or to the taxpayer," Mr Rehberg said on Thursday in an interview with Deutschlandfunk radio. "The state won't be able to afford to pay for everything," and "we still have the challenge of financing intensive-care beds for hospitals and rolling out the vaccine."

Mrs Merkel dampened expectations that new medication can quickly put an end to the disease. She said it's unclear if a vaccine for the virus will be available before Christmas, but added that Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna will deliver 7 million doses in the first quarter of 2021.

Governments across the world are hoping for a rapid rollout of such vaccines to bring an end to the pandemic. On Wednesday, Britain's drug regulator cleared the vaccine for emergency use, ahead of the US Food and Drug Administration and its European Union counterpart.

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