Germany poised to extend coronavirus lockdown

FILE PHOTO: Police officers block the boulevard 'Strasse des 17. Juni' on which the New Year's Eve celebrations with thousands of people have usually taken place in previous years, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Berlin, Germany, December 31, 2020. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany is likely to extend a national lockdown beyond Jan. 10 to curb coronavirus infection rates that are still running high and putting huge strains on hospitals and health workers, politicians said at the weekend.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and regional leaders are expected to agree to extend the restrictions when they convene on Tuesday. It is not yet clear how long the extension would last.

"The numbers are still too high, so we will have to prolong the restrictions," Health Minister Jens Spahn told RTL television in an interview on Saturday evening.

Infection rates had to be sustainably reduced, Spahn said, adding: "That is better than loosening too early and then, perhaps in as little as a few weeks, facing new and difficult questions."

Germany imposed tougher social restrictions before Christmas, including closing restaurants and most shops. Even so, infections continued to rise and the death toll has hit more than 1,000 on some days.

Seven-day infection rates are currently at 140 per 100,000 people - well over the target of 50 that politicians have agreed would be safe enough to ease the curbs.

With a new, more infectious coronavirus variant circulating, some politicians and health leaders are calling for the restrictions to be lifted only when the seven-day rate falls to 25.

"We will only see next week in the hospitals how strongly Christmas contributed to the spread of COVID-19 - the New Year effect will come only later," Uwe Janssens, head of a group representing intensive-care doctors, told the Rheinische Post.

Officials from Germany's 16 states agreed on a conference call on Saturday to extend restrictions, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung reported.

But there was disagreement over how much longer to keep the measures in force. Some harder-hit states called for a three-week extension, and for schools to be kept closed, while others favoured a two-week extension.

The Robert Koch Institute, the agency coordinating Germany's pandemic response, reported 10,315 new confirmed cases on Sunday and 312 fatalities, bringing the total death toll to 34,272.

(Writing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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