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Coronavirus digest: Merkel says Germany entering 'most difficult phase'

Angela Merkel warned that the pandemic is worsening in Germany. Meanwhile, China has announced that it will make the coronavirus vaccine free across the country. DW has the latest from around the world.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said hospitals across the country were at their limit

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said hospitals across the country were at their limit

Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a sober assessment of the coronavirus situation, warning of a difficult road ahead and urging Germans to be prudent and considerate of others. 

"These next weeks of winter are probably the most difficult phase of the pandemic," Merkel said. She added that hospitals across the country are working at their limits.  

The chancellor said current infection figures do not reflect the effects of Christmas and New Year's Eve, hinting at a possible surge in the number of cases. 

Merkel pledged to ramp up vaccinations in Germany, which has been criticized for having gotten off to a slow start. "The pace will pick up," Merkel said, adding that eventually it will be possible "to provide a vaccine to everyone who wants it." But she did not elaborate on when this would be achieved.  

Europe

In the UK, Buckingham Palace announced on Saturday that the 94-year-old Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, the 99-year-old Prince Philip, had both been vaccinated against COVID-19. The couple are considered to be particularly at risk due to their advanced age.

Denmark announced that starting on Saturday it would only allow flights into the country where every passenger tested negative before boarding. Passengers also have to show a negative test less than 24 hours before their flight.

Domestic flights, as well as flights from Greenland and the Faroe Islands, as well as passengers under 12, are exempt from the rule.

Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod warned citizens on Friday of stern travel warnings, "If you are considering traveling abroad, don't."

In France, news outlets reported that Brigitte Macron, wife of French President Emmanuel Macron, tested positive for COVID-19 over Christmas. The 67-year-old first lady suffered light symptoms which were first noticed on Christmas Eve. She tested negative six days later and had since made a full recovery, her office said.

In Germany, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases reported 24,694 newly confirmed cases in the country in the past 24 hours on Saturday, with 1,083 deaths. 

Asia

China tightened lockdown measures in the northern province of Hebei, one week after a new outbreak of COVID-19 appeared.

The Health Commission of Hebei Province reported 14 new cases in the previous 24 hours on Saturday, all of them in the largest city, Shijiazhuang. Including the new cases, there have been 137 confirmed cases in the province since January 2.

The Chinese government has pledged to make COVID-19 vaccination free of charge across the country, health officials in Beijing said on Saturday. The announcement was meant to clarify previous comments from National Health Commission official Zheng Zhongwei, saying it would be affordable. 

''Ordinary people will not need to spend a penny,'' Zheng Zhongwei later confirmed. The vaccine costs will be covered by a national medical insurance fund and government funds.

Oceania

Health officials in Australia were concerned after they discovered the highly transmissible new variants of COVID-19, originally found in the UK and South Africa, made their way to Australia. Brisbane entered a three-day lockdown after the UK strain was found. The South African variant was discovered in Sydney during a hotel quarantine.

"So long as people are traveling, the risk of the virus seeping into the community is already there," said New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

Americas

The United States saw newly confirmed COVID-19 cases reach a new high on Friday, notching nearly 290,000 in 24 hours, according to Johns Hopkins University. The university also reported 3,676 deaths in the past 24 hours.

The US has seen 21.8 million confirmed cases and more than 368,000 deaths since the pandemic began.

jcg, kbd/aw (AFP, Reuters, dpa)