BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that her country could be caught in a third wave of COVID-19 if it lifts its lockdown too quickly.
Her comments come as daycare centers and elementary schools were reopened in 10 of the Germany’s 16 states this week, and as the nation mulls ways to lift the heavy restrictions that have shuttered the country’s non-essential businesses for more than 10 weeks.
„Because of (variants), we are entering a new phase of the pandemic, from which a third wave may emerge,“ Merkel told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in an interview published on Wednesday.
„So we must proceed wisely and carefully so that a third wave does not necessitate a new complete shutdown throughout Germany.“
Much of Europe is recording cases of newer COVID-19 variants, particularly ones that first emerged in the United Kingdom and South Africa. Both are believed to spread more rapidly than previous variants.
In Germany’s staggered approach to reopening, hairdressers are due to resume business on March 1, while most other businesses must stay shut until March 7.
There are currently around 61.7 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in Germany, according to the Robert Koch Institute, the country’s public health authority. Merkel has said the goal is to reduce that incident rate to 35 per 100,000 in order to reopen the economy in a meaningful way.
Merkel defended the states‘ decisions to reopen schools, saying that districts achieving the 35 in 100,000 rate could do so without having an impact on other areas.
She added that wide-scale testing would be rolled out in line with the country’s staggered reopening.
„An intelligent opening strategy is inextricably linked with comprehensive quick tests, as it were as free tests,“ Merkel added. „I cannot say exactly how long it will take to install such a system. But it will be in March.“
Germany has been able to slow the COVID-19 infection rate with its lockdown, which included the closure of its borders with Austria and the Czech Republic. Czech health authorities are now confirming record daily infection cases, with its death toll climbing to one of the world’s worst per capita, pushing its hospitals to the brink of collapse.
Germany, like many European Union nations, is struggling to roll out a widespread vaccination program that would aid a more rapid reopening of its economy. The European Union is distributing its vaccines equally among its 27 member states, proportionate to their populations, but it has received tens of millions fewer doses than it expected.
The European Parliament is expected to grill pharmaceutical companies in a public hearing Thursday, demanding answers around failures to deliver on agreed numbers of vaccine doses.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has warned that restrictions in his country are starting to lose their impact, highlighting the urgent need of a boost to the bloc’s vaccine stocks.
„The objective situation in Austria was simply that after six weeks the lockdown had lost its effect. People have adhered to it less and less, there have been more and more shifts to the private sector, and a lockdown where no one participates, of course, makes little sense,“ he told German newspaper Bild.
He will push the European Union on Thursday to instate a „green passport“ system to allow people who have been vaccinated to travel within the bloc.
As Germany and several other European nations consider how to lift their restrictions, France — which resisted a new national lockdown as new variants emerged — is imposing new ones. President Emmanuel Macron is expected to announce new measures on Thursday.
The French Riviera has been placed under weekend lockdowns, for the next two weeks, while the region around the northern port town of Dunkirk will begin weekend lockdowns on Saturday.