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Wednesday March 3rd, 2021 2:38AM

Merkel warns of 'difficult winter' as virus surges in Europe

By The Associated Press
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BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel told Germans to expect a “difficult winter” as the number of newly reported coronavirus cases in the country hit a new high Thursday, neighboring France prepared to resume life under a new lockdown and some experts urged the Spanish government to take more aggressive action to curtail the latest wave of infections.

Speaking to Parliament a day after she and the governors of Germany’s 16 states agreed upon new, far-reaching restrictions to curb the spread of the virus, Merkel said the country faces “a dramatic situation at the beginning of the cold season.”

Germany’s disease control agency said local health authorities reported 16,774 new positive tests for COVID-19 in the past day, pushing the country’s total since the start of the outbreak close to the half million-mark. The Robert Koch Institute also recorded 89 additional deaths, taking the country’s total in the pandemic to 10,272, a number that is one-fourth the death toll in Britain.

“The winter will be difficult, four long, difficult months. But it will end,” Merkel told lawmakers. “We have already seen over the past eight months how we can learn and help each other.”

Under the restrictions going into effect Monday, restaurants, bars, sports and cultural venues will be shut for four weeks, along with beauty parlors and brothels. Groups of at most 10 people, from a maximum two households, will be allowed to meet in public and all non-essential journeys will be discouraged.

Schools, kindergartens, stores and places of worship will remain open, prompting some to call the measures a “lockdown light” compared to the more severe shutdown Germany saw in March and April.

Merkel said authorities had no choice but to drastically reduce social contacts as three-quarters of infections in Germany now are no longer traceable.

“If we wait until the ICUs are full, then it will be too late,” she said.

The long-time German leader said democratic debate about the virus restrictions was important, butshe blasted some critics who have claimed the German government was exaggerating the threat of the virus.

“Lies and disinformation, conspiracies and hatred damage not just the debate but also the battle against the virus,” she said. “It’s not just democratic debate that depends on our relationship to facts and information, human lives depend on it.”

Opposition leader Alexander Gauland of the far-right Alternative for Germany party responded to Merkel’s speech by accusing the government of “wartime propaganda” and likened the pandemic to motorized traffic, arguing that society accepts a certain number of car deaths too.

Germany's finance and economy ministers planned to announce details of further funding for businesses affected by the new measures Thursday.

Wealthy Germany has been able to mobilize massive financial aid for people and companies, dampening the economic blow of the pandemic. Still, there has been anger over the new measures, particularly from restaurant owners who had set up heated outdoor seating areas and made other preparations to operate in line with public health regulations, only to be told they aren't allowed to serve customers for a month.

While France announced a second, full nationwide lockdown Wednesday, many countries have hesitated to take such drastic measures for the second time in a year, wary of the pain that caused to the economy.

The British government has resisted calls for a national lockdown, despite significantly higher 14-day infection rates than Germany.

Britain’s communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, said Thursday that the virus is “very concentrated in some places,” insisting that it was right to target restrictions on those areas with the worst outbreaks.

In Spain, authorities have been imposing incremental restrictions on free movement, nightlife and social gatherings, but they have refrained from a strict stay-at-home order like the one that curbed the first wave of infections but scarred the economy.

But with officials predicting that current levels of infection will put hospitals under a serious shortage of intensive care beds next month, some experts are already calling for a full lockdown.

Some Spanish regions, namely Catalonia and La Rioja, have already ordered bars and restaurants to close, while most of the rest have imposed curfews limiting nightlife.

Extra subsidies have not accompanied the restrictions, prompting loud protests in Barcelona this week by hospitality business owners who banged pots, waved cocktail shakers and chanted “We want to work.”

Pablo Casado, who leads Spain’s conservative opposition, praised the leaders of France and Germany on Wednesday for showing leadership “addressing the nation in a brief and concise way to lead the response to the pandemic.”

Spain has officially recorded more than 1.1 million COVID-19 cases, although authorities say the true figure, including missed cases, could be at least three times higher. The death toll is at least 35,000.

As case numbers climb across Europe, many countries have begun drafting volunteers without medical backgrounds to help support the health care systems.

Soldiers have been trained to administer coronavirus tests in Poland, Germany is using its military to carry out contact tracing, and the mayor of Prague is taking shifts at a hospital in the Czech capital.

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Angela Charlton in Paris, Raf Casert in Brussels and Ciarán Giles in Madrid contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coronavirus pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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