Merkel warns of third virus wave as Germany weighs ending lockdown

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Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that Germany is in the midst of a third wave of coronavirus infections and that moves to reopen schools and businesses should be weighed with caution as the country debates how to exit its lockdown and relieve its ailing economy.

Ending restrictions on personal contact must be accompanied by more testing and vaccinations, Merkel told lawmakers of the Christian Democratic Union-led conservative bloc Tuesday in a video conference, according to a participant on the call. The chancellor warned that the virus’s U.K. variant is already spreading in Germany, threatening the success of the country’s containment efforts to date.

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Helge Braun, Merkel’s chief of staff, told lawmakers that the mutated virus could rapidly lead to a rise in new infections, with the so-called incidence rate -- a key measure for confirmed daily cases -- rising as high as 800. The average incidence rate in Germany is currently at 60, according to data from the Robert Koch Institute, and Merkel has set a rate of 50 as the minimum for lifting certain restrictions, with further curbs possibly eased at a rate below 35.

Federal and state officials have proposed a variety of plans for exiting the current lockdown, leading to some confusion over management of the pandemic. Health Minister Jens Spahn was forced to drop a plan to offer free tests starting in March amid opposition from state leaders. Merkel will discuss testing strategies in her next meeting with those officials March 3.

That hasn’t stopped officials at state level from putting forth their own proposals. Daniel Guenther, the CDU premier of Germany’s northernmost state, Schleswig-Holstein, has called for a four-stage program of reopening shops and restaurants in regions with an incidence rate below 50, while the Social Democrats’ Malu Dreyer, who leads Rhineland Palatinate and faces an election March 14, has a separate plan based on the number of new infections, tests and vaccinations.

Markus Soeder, leader of Bavaria and head of its Christian Social Union party -- who’s also seen as a possible successor to Merkel -- has warned of the danger from virus mutations and called for the continuation of the chancellor’s strict lockdown policy.

CSU caucus leader Alexander Dobrindt has proposed a digital certificate to allow vaccinated citizens to circulate freely, though he said Tuesday the country needs to return to normalcy even before its vaccination program is complete.

And Economy Minister Peter Altmaier is working on his own plan aimed at helping businesses.

Chief of Staff Braun met state officials Tuesday to try to find a consensus from the competing plans, with Merkel expected to eventually mediate.

“People expect us to have a long-term opening strategy even though this pandemic makes it almost impossible to develop one, a party official said.

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