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Angela Merkel has called for Germans to be "extremely cautious" and warned of the "dangers" of variants. Lawmakers are hoping to avoid the health system being overrun by new COVID-19 mutations.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke in the Bundestag on Thursday to defend the extension of the nationwide lockdown until March 7.
The German government and state leaders agreed to maintain lockdown measures beyond February 14, but with the option of "gradually" opening schools and daycare centers as well as hairdressers earlier.
"We have to be extremely cautious that we don't get into this exponential growth spiral again," Merkel told lawmakers.
She also warned that the new mutations, which are already present in Germany, "may destroy any success" already achieved by the monthslong lockdown.
The chancellor also defended the use of infection rates to determine when it is safe to ease the lockdown measures.
"I really support the fact that when it comes to further openings and reopenings we've decided on the basis of these new mutations, not to give dates, but to give infection rates," she said.
The German chancellor acknowledged that the lockdown had caused lots of suffering, saying: "This is a hard winter, both outside and when it comes to our lives."
However, she said that her aim was to avoid another wave with out-of-control infection rates.
"My target is that any new wave that might happen if the new virus strains become dominant, we mustn't give that room, we mustn't end up with another two-digit exponential growth."
DW political correspondent Nina Haase was watching the speech and highlighted how Merkel's position was eased by the fact that she is not standing for reelection. She was "not under the same pressure as other politicians to make compromises."
"Angela Merkel wanted the maximum possible extension of the current lockdown measures, she wanted them to be extended until at least March 14," Haase told DW.
However, "there are some state premiers who are under a lot more pressure because many people want the restrictions to be lifted and they are going to stand in local and regional elections which are happening on March 14."
The lockdown end date of March 7 was a "present to voters" just before the elections, Haase said.
Karl Lauterbach, health expert for the Socialist Party of Germany (SPD) told DW that he thought greater emphasis needed to be given to cooperation with Europe.
"It is impossible for us to beat this pandemic alone. I was a little bit surprised that Angela Merkel did not mention Europe this time," he said, referring to the Chancellor's speech to parliament.
Lauterbach warned that in the future, Europe will need to continue the current vaccination program as well as provide new or updated vaccines to tackle mutations.
He described the coming weeks as a pivotal moment in tackling the coronavirus pandemic. "If we deliver in the next three or four weeks, we will be in a position to really control the next couple of months until the summer when the vaccination roll-out is gearing up."
All nonessential shops and services are currently closed, as are schools, while workplaces have been urged to send workers home.
People must wear medical masks or FFP2 filter masks when entering shops or using public transport and contact is limited to one person outside of the same household.
State leaders and the government agreed that hairdressers may begin to open from March 1 if they follow strict hygiene guidelines while each state may decide on how to "gradually reopen" schools and daycare centers.
The government is now also aiming for an infection rate of 35 new infections per 100,000 people in the past seven days. This number is lower than the previous rate of 50 that was considered necessary to allow contact tracing to function.
The infection rate has been falling, but lawmakers are concerned about the spread of new, more contagious variants of COVID-19 — which are already present in Germany — if the country opens up too quickly.
The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) recorded over 10,200 new infections in the past 24 hours on Thursday, slightly up from the previous two days, but following a general downward trend.
The infection rate reached 64.2 new infections per 100,000 people in the past seven days, down from a high of 197.6 on December 22.
There were also 666 new coronavirus deaths reported on Thursday, bringing the total death toll since the beginning of the pandemic up to 63,635.
As pointed out in Merkel's speech, many people have been disappointed by the slow rollout of vaccines across the country.
According to the RKI, some 2.4 million people have received their first vaccine jab — equivalent to 2.9% of the population — while 1.1 million have been given both doses — 1.3% of the population.