Germany extends Covid lockdown amid pressure over vaccine strategy

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Germany's state and federal governments agreed on Tuesday to extend and expand coronavirus lockdown rules in the country until 31 January.

After Germany's daily deaths surpassed the 1,000-mark for the first time on 30 December, pressure has escalated to slow the spread of the disease which has claimed more than 34,000 lives.

The current lockdown regulations will now be in place until at least 31 January, and new rules have been introduced.

"We must be especially careful now. We are in a new and extraordinary situation," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a press conference announcing the new rules.

Under new regulations, residents of areas deemed coronavirus hotspots will be restricted from traveling more than 15 kilometres without a valid reason. Day trips are specifically ruled out.

Lingering lockdown

"Given that infection rates are still too high, it will be necessary to extend the restrictions," Health Minister Jens Spahn said earlier.

Michael Kretschmer, premier of Saxony, the state with the highest infection rates in the country, said a continued shutdown was "unavoidable".

The current rules have seen most shops closed along with schools, restaurants, cultural and leisure facilities, and celebrations over Christmas and the New Year holidays were limited to small gatherings.

Officials say the impact of holiday travel and socialising on the virus's spread will not be known until mid-January but that the figures to date are already deeply worrying.

Government spokesman Steffen Seibert said with some 5,700 corona patients in intensive care, "hospitals in many places are working close to capacity".

Spahn noted that given such figures, a return to "face-to-face" learning for children was "highly implausible" and called for national guidelines on when and how schools could reopen.

'Hard winter’

In a New Year's Eve televised address, Merkel had already warned Germans of a hard winter, stressing "the challenges that the pandemic poses remain immense".

But since October, the meetings between Merkel and regional leaders to set policy on the coronavirus have been marked by open conflict, with the chancellor pushing for a tougher line against resistance from several states.

Although Merkel's popularity remains high and a large majority of Germans are broadly satisfied with her handling of the pandemic, analysts say those differences also undermined faith in the shutdown.

Vaccination drive

The country began a vaccination drive on 26 December, and more than 264,000 people have received the first of two jabs.

But German media and even the Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in the government, have slammed what they call a slow rollout, accusing the government of relying too much on joint action with the European Union.

At the start of an election year, SPD leaders have demanded answers from Spahn why "the European Commission ordered so few vaccines" and "Germany did not order the doses unclaimed in the EU".

A poll from Civey institute found 44 percent of Germans were unconvinced by the government inoculation strategy, while around 40 percent were "highly confident" it was the right approach.

Merkel's spokesman insisted the European way was in the German interest, adding that the latest inoculation numbers "give us great hope".

(with wires)